Archive for the ‘International Monetary Fund’ Category

I don’t like international bureaucracies that push statist policies.

In a perverse way, though, I admire their brassiness. They’re now arguing that higher taxes are good for growth.

This isn’t a joke. They never offer any evidence, of course, but it’s now routine to find international bureaucrats asserting that there will be more prosperity if more resources are taken out of the private sector and given to politicians (see the 3:30 mark of this video for some evidence).

Christine Lagarde, the lavishly paid head of the IMF, is doubling down on this bizarre idea that higher tax burdens are a way to generate more growth for poor nations.

…we are here to discuss an equally powerful tool for global growth — domestic resource mobilization. …taxes, and the improvement of tax systems, can boost development in incredible ways… So today, allow me first to explain the IMF’s commitment to capacity development and second, to outline strategies governments can use to generate stable sources of revenue…the IMF has a third important development mission — capacity development.

Keep in mind that all of the buzz phrases in the preceding passages – “resource mobilization” and “capacity development” – refer to governments imposing and collecting more taxes.

Again, I’m not joking.

…the focus of our event today — enabling countries to raise public tax revenues efficiently.

And there’s plenty of rhetoric about how higher taxes somehow translate into more prosperity.

Resource mobilization can, if pursued wisely, become a key pillar of strong economy… For many developing countries, increased revenue is a necessary catalyst to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and can be a driver of inclusive growth. Yet in some countries revenue remains stagnant, as the resources needed to enhance economic and civic life sit on the sidelines.

Wow, money that the government doesn’t grab apparently will just “sit on the sidelines.”

Lagarde’s entire speech was a triumph of anti-empiricism.

For instance, the western world went from poverty to prosperity in the 1800s when government was very small, averaging less than 10 percent of economic output.

Yet Lagarde makes an unsubstantiated assertion that today’s poor nations should have tax burdens of at least 15 percent of GDP (the OECD is even worse, arguing that taxes should consume 25 percent of economic output).

How significant is the resource problem? Developing countries typically collect between 10 to 20 percent of GDP in taxes, while the average for advanced economies is closer to 40 percent. IMF staff research shows that developing countries should aim to collect 15 percent of GDP to improve the likelihood of achieving stable and sustainable growth.

By the way, I should not that the IMF partnered with Oxfam, the radical left-wing pressure group, at the conference where her speech was delivered (sort of like the OECD cooperating with the crazies in the Occupy movement).

Moreover, her support for higher taxes is rather hypocritical since she doesn’t have to pay tax on her munificent salary.

I’ve also written about the various ways the IMF has endorsed higher taxes in the United States.

It’s also worth noting that the IMF boss thinks America should have a bigger welfare state as well. Here’s some of what she said about policy in the United States.

Policies need to help lower income households – including through a higher federal minimum wage, more generous earned income tax credit, and upgraded social programs for the nonworking poor. …There is a need to deepen and improve the provision of reasonable benefits to households… This should include paid family leave to care for a child or a parent, childcare assistance, and a better disability insurance program. I would just note that the U.S. is the only country among advanced economies without paid maternity leave at the national level.

The IMF even figured out a way to criticize the notion of lower corporate taxation in the United States.

The IMF…said that already highly leveraged U.S. companies may not be in a position to translate a cash-flow boost from U.S. Republican tax reform proposals into productive capital investments that can aid sustainable growth. Instead, the Fund said the slug of cash, which is likely to include repatriation of profits held overseas by multinational corporations, could be channelled into risks such as purchases of financial assets, mergers and dividend payouts. Such temptations would be highest in the information technology and health care sectors, according to the report. “Cash flow from tax reforms may accrue mainly to sectors that have engaged in substantial financial risk taking,” the IMF said. “Such risk taking is associated with intermittent large destabilising swings in the financial system over the past few decades.”

Basically, the bureaucrats at the IMF want us to believe that money left in private hands will be poorly used.

That’s a strange theory, but the oddest part of this report is that the IMF actually argued that a small repatriation holiday in 2004 somehow caused the recession of 2008 (almost all rational people put the blame on the Federal Reserve and the duo of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

The report noted that past major tax changes typically were followed by increases in financial risk-taking, including the tax reforms in 1986 and a corporate tax repatriation “holiday” in 2004. In both cases, these led to leverage buildups that were followed by recessions, in 1990 and 2008. …inflation and interest rates could rise more sharply than expected. This could increase market volatility and raise debt service costs for already-stretched corporate balance sheets, the IMF said. …”Tighter financial conditions could lead to distress” for weaker firms, the IMF said, noting that resulting losses would be borne by banks, life insurers, mutual funds, pension funds, and overseas institutions.

But the U.S. isn’t special.

The IMF wants higher tax burdens everywhere. Such as the Caribbean.

Over the past decade, governments in the Caribbean region have introduced the value-added tax (VAT) to modernize their tax system, rapidly mobilize revenue… VAT…has boosted revenues, the VAT has not reached its potential. …The paper also finds that although tax administration reforms can boost revenues, countries have just started… These reforms need to intensify in order to have a more significant impact on compliance and revenue.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer has a very dim assessment of the International Monetary Fund’s actions.

He starts with some background information.

The original vision of the IMF was as an agency attending to global stability… Along with the World Bank, the agency was created at an alcohol-fueled conference of 730 delegates from 44 nations, convened 72 years ago in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. No matter that the delegates from one of the important attendees, the Soviet Union, did not speak English: Harry Dexter White, the head of the U.S. delegation, was a Soviet agent who kept Moscow informed of the goings-on. …Today’s IMF includes 189 nations, has some 2,700 employees and an annual budget in excess of $1 billion, almost 18 percent of which comes from U.S. taxpayers.

He then points out that the IMF has a bad habit of putting dodgy people in charge.

In 2004 Rodrigo Rato took the top chair and served until 2007, when he resigned to face trial in Spain for a variety of frauds involving over 70 bank accounts, and the amassing of a €27 million fortune in a web of dozens of companies. Sr. Rato was succeeded by Dominique Strauss-Kahn… Strauss-Kahn did a reasonable job until arrested in New York City on charges of imposing himself on a hotel maid whose testimony proved so incredible that all criminal charges were dropped. But DSK did settle her civil suit for a reported $1.5 million… Madame Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister, took over as managing director. …Lagarde now faces a criminal trial in France for approving a 2008 arbitration decision award of £340 million to a major financial supporter of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy that was later reversed by an appeals court.

And he notes that these head bureaucrats are lavishly compensated.

…her job…pays $500,000 per year, tax free, plus benefits and a $75,000 allowance to be paid “without any certification or justification by you, to enable you to maintain, in the interests of the Fund, a scale of living appropriate to your position as Managing Director.” The salary is twice the take-home pay of the American president, who must pay taxes on his $400,000 salary… Vacations and sick leave follow generous European standards.

Last but not least, he points out that IMF economists have a lousy track record.

All of which might be money well spent if the IMF had been reasonably successful in one of its key functions—forecasting the outlook for the international economy. …one can’t help wondering what is going on in the IMF’s highly paid forecasting shop. A study of the 189 IMF members by the Economist finds 220 instances between 1999 and 2014 in which an economy grew one year before sinking the next. “In its April forecasts the IMF never once foresaw the contraction looming in the next year.” The magazine’s random-number generator got it right 18 percent of the time.

If all the IMF did was waste a lot of money producing inaccurate forecasts, I wouldn’t be overly upset.

After all, economists seemingly specialize in getting the future wrong. My problem is that the IMF pushes bad policy.

Let’s close with a defense of the bureaucracy.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the IMF is needed because of future crises.

A number of recent senior U.S. Treasury nominations, who are known for their antipathy towards the International Monetary Fund, seems to signal that President Trump might want to have a smaller IMF. Before he yields to the temptation of trying to downsize that institution, he might want to reflect on the fact that there is a high probability that during his term he will be confronted with a global economic crisis that will require a large IMF… It is generally not a good idea to think about downsizing the fire brigade on the eve of a major conflagration. In the same way, it would seem that President Trump would be ill-advised to think about reigning in the IMF at a time when there is the real prospect of a global economic crisis during his term of office.

I actually agree with much of what Desmond wrote about the possibility of economic and fiscal crisis in the near future.

The problem, though, is that the IMF is not a fire brigade. It’s more akin to a collection of fiscal pyromaniacs.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I want to acknowledge that we sometimes get good analysis from the IMF. Economists from that bureaucracy have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule. They also made some good observations about tax policy earlier this year. And IMF researchers in 2016 concluded that smaller government and lower taxes produce more prosperity. Moreover, an IMF study in 2015 found that decentralized government works better.

P.P.S. On the other hand, I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period. And I also think it’s funny that IMF bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

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Since I’ve written that the International Monetary Fund is the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy,” I don’t think anyone could call me a fan of that international bureaucracy.

But I’ve also noted that the real problem with organizations like the IMF is that they have bad leadership. The professional economists at international bureaucracies often produce good theoretical and empirical work. That sensible research doesn’t make much difference, though, since the actual real-world policy decisions are made by political hacks with a statist orientation.

For instance, the economists at the IMF have produced research on the benefits of smaller government and spending caps. But the political leadership at the IMF routinely ignores that sensible research and instead has a dismal track record of pushing for tax increases.

Hope springs eternal, though, so I’m going to share some new IMF research on tax policy that is very sound. It’s from the second chapter of the bureaucracy’s newest Fiscal Monitor. Here are some excerpts, starting with an explanation of why the efficient allocation of resources is so important for prosperity.

A top challenge facing policymakers today is how to raise productivity, the key driver of living standards over the long term. …The IMF’s policy agenda has therefore emphasized the need to employ all policy levers, and in particular to promote growth-friendly fiscal policies that will boost productivity and potential output. Total factor productivity (TFP) at the country level reflects the productivity of individual firms…aggregate TFP depends on firms’ individual TFP and also on how available resources (labor and capital) are allocated across firms. Indeed, the poor use of existing resources within countries—referred to here as resource misallocation—has been found to be an important source of differences in TFP levels across countries and over time. …What is resource misallocation? Simply put, it is the poor distribution of resources across firms, reducing the total output that can be obtained from existing capital and labor.

The chapter notes that creative destruction plays a vital role in growth.

Baily, Hulten, and Campbell (1992) find that 50 percent of manufacturing productivity growth in the United States during the 1980s can be attributed to the reallocation of factors across plants and to firm entry and exit. Similarly, Barnett and others (2014) find that labor reallocation across firms explained 48 percent of labor productivity growth for most sectors in the U.K. economy in the five years prior to 2007.

And a better tax system would enable some of that growth by creating a level playing field.

Simply stated, you want people in the private sector to make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than because they’re taking advantage of some bizarre quirk in the tax code.

Potential TFP gains from reducing resource misallocation are substantial and could lift the annual real GDP growth rate by roughly 1 percentage point. …Upgrading the design of their tax systems can help countries chip away at resource misallocation by ensuring that firms’ decisions are made for business and not tax reasons. Governments can eliminate distortions that they themselves have created. …For instance, the current debt bias feature of some tax systems not only distorts financing decisions but hampers productivity as well, especially in the case of advanced economies. …Empirical evidence shows that greater tax disparity across capital asset types is associated with higher misallocation.

One of the main problems identified by the IMF experts is the tax bias for debt.

And since I wrote about this problem recently, I’m glad to see that there is widespread agreement on the economic harm that is created.

Corporate debt bias occurs when firms are allowed to deduct interest expenses, but not returns to equity, in calculating corporate tax liability. …Several options are available to eliminate the distortions arising from corporate debt bias and from tax disparities across capital asset types, including the allowance for corporate equity system and a cash flow tax. …In the simplest sense, a CFT is a tax levied on the money entering the business less the money leaving the business. A CFT entails immediate expensing of all investment expenditures (that is, 100 percent first-year depreciation allowances) and no deductibility of either interest payments or dividends. Therefore, if it is well designed and implemented, a CFT does not affect the decision to invest or the scale of investment, and it does not discriminate across sources of financing.

By the way, regular readers may notice that the IMF economists favor a cash-flow tax, which is basically how the business side of the flat tax operates. There is full expensing in that kind of system, and interest and dividends are treated equally.

This is also the approach in the House Better Way tax plan, so the consensus for cash-flow taxation is very broad (though the House wants a destination-based approach, which is misguided for several reasons).

But let’s not digress. There’s one other aspect of the IMF chapter that is worthy of attention. There’s explicit discussion of how high tax rates undermine tax compliance, which is music to my ears.

Several studies have shown that tax policy and tax administration affect the prevalence of informality and thus productivity. Colombia provides an interesting case study on the effect of taxation on informality. A 2012 tax reform that reduced payroll taxes was found to incentivize a shift of Colombian workers out of informal into formal employment. Leal Ordóñez (2014) finds that taxes and regulations play an important role in explaining informality in Mexico. For Brazil, Fajnzylber, Maloney, and Montes-Rojas (2011) show that tax reductions and simplification led to a significant increase in formal firms with higher levels of revenue and profits. While a higher tax burden contributes to the prevalence of informality… For 130 developing countries, a higher corporate tax rate is found to increase the prevalence of cheats among small manufacturing firms, lowering the share of sales reported for tax purposes.

In closing, I should point out that the IMF chapter is not perfect.

For instance, even though it cites research about how high tax rates reduce compliance, the chapter doesn’t push for lower rates. Instead, it endorses more power for national tax authorities. Makes me wonder if the political folks at the IMF imposed that recommendation on the folks who wrote the chapter?

Regardless, the overall analysis of the chapter is quite sound. It’s based on a proper understanding that growth is generated by the efficient allocation of labor and capital, and it recognizes that bad tax policy undermines that process by distorting incentives for productive behavior.

The next step is convince Ms. Lagarde and the rest of the IMF’s leadership to read the chapter. They get tax-free salaries, so is it too much to ask that they stop pushing for higher taxes on the rest of us?

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Since I’ve referred to the International Monetary Fund as both “the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy,” readers can safely conclude that I’m not a fan of the international bureaucracy. My main gripe is that senior bureaucrats routinely make the mistake of bailing out profligate governments (often as a back-door way of bailing out banks that foolishly lent to those governments), and they compound that mistake by then insisting on big tax hikes.

But as I’ve noted when writing about international bureaucracies, the professional economists who work for these organizations often produce very good work.

And that’s true even for the IMF. The bureaucracy published a study a few years ago entitled “The Size of Government and U.S.–European Differences in Economic Performance” and it has some useful and interesting conclusions. Here are some excerpts, along with my observations. We’ll start with the question the authors want to answer.

How much of a drag is the modern welfare state on economic performance? … One standard approach has been to estimate the disincentive effects of taxes and deduce that lower taxes would imply higher welfare. However, in the context of modern democracies, this argument begs the question why voters prefer an inferior economic outcome (a higher tax burden) instead of voting for parties that would minimize taxes.

Actually, we don’t need to “beg the question.” We get bad policy because voters get seduced into voting for politicians who promise to pillage the “rich” and give goodies to everyone else. And since voters generally don’t understand that this approach leads to “an inferior economic outcome,” the process can continue indefinitely (or until the ratio between those pulling the wagon and those riding in the wagon gets too imbalanced).

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main focus of the study. The authors note that Europe isn’t converging with the United States, which is what standard economic theory says should be happening.

The academic debate over the long-term failure of European countries to catch up with U.S. economic performance also points to the need for a better assessment of the economic effects of large governments. Over the last three decades, European countries have not made inroads in closing a gap in per capita income vis-à-vis the US. …This paper focuses on…the role of the size of the public sector… The literature studying the impact of government on economic performance is large. Theory has focused on welfare effects—stressing the distortionary impact of taxation and government spending… observed government sizes generally tend to be too large, thus depressing welfare in many countries, or actual policies depart from allocationally optimal ones, especially in the “Rhineland-model” European economies.

And here are some of the results.

… a higher tax wedge results in lower hours worked. Moreover, the equation can be used to predict hours worked as a function of the tax wedge. …based on these calibrations, and using the welfare measure described in Appendix II, the steady-state welfare effects of varying the size of government can be analyzed. Table 2 provides the results of two such thought experiments: (i) to cut the marginal tax rate by five percentage points and (ii) to adopt U.S. taxation levels (in both accompanied by offsetting changes in spending), with the welfare change measured in the incremental consumption equivalent of the tax cuts. For example, had Belgium between 1990–99 cut marginal income tax rates by five percentage points, it would have reaped a welfare gain equivalent to 7⅓ percent of aggregate consumption (or of 21 percent if it had adopted US tax levels). These are large potential welfare gains from cutting back government.

Here’s a table from the study showing the theoretical gains from lowering tax rates, either by 5-percentage points, or all the way down to American levels.

But the authors note that their model is incomplete, with some countries doing better than what’s implied by their fiscal systems.

The basic model has considerable difficulties in accounting for labor supply in very high-tax countries, which it frequently underpredicted (e.g., the Nordic countries, excluding Norway…). …One group comprising Sweden and Denmark… Both countries are often singled out as countries with large government, but, as seen in the previous, both also have higher than predicted labor supply in the baseline model.

The study tries to explain such differences by considering whether some governments spend money in an effective manner on “active labor market policies” that produce higher levels of labor supply.

Perhaps that’s a partial explanation, but I think there’s a much simpler way of making sense of the data. The Nordic nations, as I’ve repeatedly written, have strongly pro-market policies once fiscal policy is taken out of the equation.

So if you just look at fiscal policy, they should be way behind the United States. But since they are more market-oriented than America in other areas (trade, rule of law, regulation, and monetary policy), that shrinks the gap.

That being said, I’m not going to be too critical of the IMF study since it does reach a very sensible conclusion.

…the size of government does play a significant role in explaining lower European labor supply…the size of European governments appears to imply large welfare costs. …Moreover, government policies that do not directly increase the size of government, e.g., regulation, are observed to also impart significant costs.

By the way, don’t assume this IMF study is an outlier. When economists at international bureaucracies are free to do real research without interference by their political masters, it’s not uncommon for them to produce sensible results.

Last but not least, here’s the video I narrated on the “Rahn Curve” and the growth-maximizing size of government.

Now if we could just get Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to understand this research, we’ll be in good shape (actually, since those two are poster children for the theory of Public Choice, who am I kidding?).

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I must be perversely masochistic because I have the strange habit of reading reports issued by international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But one tiny silver lining to this dark cloud is that it’s given me an opportunity to notice how these groups have settled on a common strategy of urging higher taxes for the ostensible purpose of promoting growth and development.

Seriously, this is their argument, though they always rely on euphemisms when asserting that politicians should get more money to spend.

  • The OECD, for instance, has written that “Increased domestic resource mobilisation is widely accepted as crucial for countries to successfully meet the challenges of development and achieve higher living standards for their people.”
  • The Paris-based bureaucrats of the OECD also asserted that “now is the time to consider reforms that generate long-term, stable resources for governments to finance development.”
  • The IMF is banging on this drum as well, with news reports quoting the organization’s top bureaucrat stating that “…economies need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks…by boosting…sources of revenues.” while also reporting that “The IMF chief said taxation allows governments to mobilize their revenues.”
  • And the UN, which has “…called for a tax on billionaires to help raise more than $400 billion a year” routinely categorizes such money grabs as “financing for development.”

As you can see, these bureaucracies are singing from the same hymnal, but it’s a new version.

In the past, the left agitated for higher taxes simply in hopes for having more redistribution.

And they’ve urged higher taxes because of spite and hostility against those with high incomes.

Some folks on the left also have supported higher taxes on the theory that the economy’s performance is boosted when deficits are smaller.

But now, they are advocating higher taxes (oops, excuse me, I mean they are urging “resource mobilization” to generate “stable resources” so there can be “financing for development” in order to “strengthen fiscal frameworks”) on the theory that bigger government is the way to get more growth.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn, however, that these reports from international bureaucracies never provide any evidence for this novel hypothesis. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. The null set.

They simply assert that governments will be able to make presumably wonderful growth-generating “investments” if politicians can squeeze more money from the private sector.

And I strongly suspect that this absence of evidence is deliberate. Simply stated, international bureaucracies are willing to produce shoddy research (just look at what the IMF and OECD wrote about the relationship between growth and inequality), but there’s a limit to how far data can be tortured and manipulated.

Especially when there’s so much evidence from real scholars that economic performance is weakened when government gets bigger.

Not to mention that most sentient beings can look around the world and look at the moribund economies of nations with large governments (such as France, Italy, and Greece) and compare them with the better performance of places with smaller government (such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore).

But if you read the aforementioned reports from the international bureaucracies, you’ll notice that some of them focus on getting more growth in poor nations.

Perhaps, some statists might argue, government is big enough in Europe, but not big enough in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

So let’s look at the numbers. Is it true that governments in the developing world don’t have enough money to provide core public goods?

The answer is no.

But before sharing those numbers, let’s look at some historical data. A few years ago, I shared some research demonstrating that countries in North America and Western Europe became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the burden of government spending was very modest.

One would logically conclude from this data that today’s poor nations should copy that approach.

Yet here’s the data from the International Monetary Fund on government expenditures in various poor regions of the world. As you can see, the burden of government spending in these areas is two or three times larger than it was in America and other nations that when they made the move from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

The bottom line is that small government and free markets is the recipe for growth and prosperity in all nations.

Just don’t expect international bureaucracies to share that recipe since one of the obvious conclusions is that we therefore don’t need parasitical bodies like the IMF, OECD, World Bank, and UN.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton also has adopted the mantra of higher-taxes → bigger government → more growth.

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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund. The bureaucracy was created in 1944 to manage and coordinate the system of fixed exchange rates created as part of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. But once fixed exchange rates disappeared, the over-funded bureaucracy cleverly adopted a new rationale for its existence and its main role now is to bail out insolvent nations (what that really means, of course, is that it exists to bail out big banks that foolishly lend money to profligate third-world governments).

As part of this new mission, the IMF acts like the Pied Piper of tax hikes. The bureaucrats parachute into nations, refinance and restructure the debt of those countries, and insist on a bunch of tax increases in hopes that more revenue will then be available to service the new debt.

Needless to say, this is not exactly a recipe for growth and prosperity. The private sector in these countries gets hammered with tax increases, the big banks in rich nations get indirect bailouts, and the real problem of bloated government generally is left to fester and metastasize.

This is why I’ve referred to the IMF as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy. But the bureaucracy is bad for other reasons. It also has decided that it should grade all nations on their economic policies and it routinely uses that self-assigned authority to recommend big tax hikes all over the world. Including lots of tax increases in the United States.

The IMF even tries to interfere with American elections. Just recently, the chief bureaucrat of the organization launched a not-too-subtle attack on Donald Trump.

Though in this case, which involved trade barriers, the IMF actually is on the right side (the bureaucracy generally has a pro-tax bias, but the one big exception is that it favors lower taxes on global trade).

Anyhow, the IMF’s Managing Director warned that additional protectionist taxes on global trade threaten the global economy. And even though she didn’t specifically mention the Republican nominee, you can see from the various headlines I’m sharing that reporters put 2 + 2 together and realized that Ms Lagarde was criticizing Trump.

And he deserves condemnation. The post-World War II shift to lower trade taxes has been a big victory for economic freedom (indeed, tariff reductions have helped offset the damage caused by increasingly bad fiscal policy over the past several decades).

Nonetheless, there is something quite unseemly about an international bureaucracy taking sides in an American election (who do they think they are, the IRS?). Especially since American taxpayers underwrite the biggest share of the IMF’s activities.

Let’s look specifically at an analysis of the IMF’s actions from the UK-based Guardian.

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has launched a thinly veiled attack on the anti-free-trade sentiments expressed by US presidential candidate Donald Trump… Lagarde made it clear she strongly opposed the Republican candidate’s policies, which include higher US tariffs and a barrier along the border with Mexico. …“There is a growing risk of politicians seeking office by promising to ‘get tough’ with foreign trade partners through punitive tariffs or other restrictions on trade…” She added that throughout history there had been arguments about trade. “But history clearly tells us that closing borders or increasing protectionism is not the way to go…”

By the way, while I agree with her comments on trade, her comments about a “barrier along the border with Mexico” reek of hypocrisy.

Christine Lagarde criticises his policies including plans for…a US-Mexico border wall.

Those who have visited the IMF’s lavish headquarters can confirm that there is a very heavily guarded barrier separating the IMF from the hoi polloi and peasantry of Washington.

Call me crazy, but a bureaucracy with lots of security to prevent unauthorized people from entering its building is in no position to lecture a nation for wanting security to prevent unauthorized people from crossing its borders. And I say this as someone who generally favors immigration.

But let’s set that issue aside. There’s actually a very serious sin of omission in the IMF’s analysis that needs to be addressed.

The international bureaucracy (correctly) opposes trade taxes and wants to build on the progress of recent decades by further reducing government-imposed barriers to cross-border economic activity. As noted above, this is the right position and I applaud the IMF’s defense of lower tariffs and expanded trade.

That being said, the level of protectionism has fallen significantly in the post-World War II era. In other words, trade taxes already are reasonably low. Yes, it would be better if they were even lower (ideally zero, like in Hong Kong).

My problem (or, to be more accurate, one of my problems) with the IMF is that the bureaucracy acts as if the world economy is hanging in the balance if there’s some sort of increase in the currently low tax burden on trade.

Yet what about the tax burden on behaviors that actually generate the income people use to purchase goods from other nations? Top tax rates on personal income average more than 40 percent in the developed world, dwarfing the average tariffs of trade.

And the burden on income that is saved and invested is even higher because of double taxation, which is especially destructive since all economic theories – including Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a key to long-run growth and higher living standards (i.e., the ability to buy more goods, including those produced in other nations).

So here’s the question that must be asked: If it is bad to have very modest taxes on the share of people’s income that is used to buy goods produced in other nations, then why isn’t it even worse to have very onerous taxes on the productive behaviors that generate that income?

In other words, if the IMF is correct (and it is) to criticize Trump for threatening to increase the modest tax rates that are imposed on global trade, then why doesn’t the IMF criticize Hillary Clinton for threatening to increase the rather harsh tax rates that are imposed on working, saving, and investment?

Maybe Madame Lagarde’s army of flunkies and servants (one of the many perks she gets, in addition to a munificent tax-free salary) can explain that sauce for a goose is also sauce for a gander.

By the way, I can’t resist addressing one final aspect to this story. The Guardian‘s report notes that Lagarde wants to offset the supposedly harmful impact of trade by further increasing the size and scope of government.

…the solution was for governments to provide direct financial support for those with low skills through higher minimum wages, more generous welfare states, investment in education and a crackdown on tax evasion.

Wow, that’s a lot of economic illiteracy packed into one sentence fragment.

Now you understand why I refer to the IMF as the dumpster fire of global economics.

P.S. While the IMF likes to push bad policy for the United States, the bureaucracy’s proposals for China are akin to a declaration of economic warfare.

P.P.S. The IMF’s flip-flop on infrastructure spending reveals a lot about the bureaucracy’s inner workings.

P.P.P.S. While the IMF often produces sloppy and dishonest research, every so often the professional economists on the staff slip something  useful past the political types. Though my all-time-favorite bit of IMF research was the study that inadvertently showed why a value-added tax is so dangerous.

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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know – most bad, though some good – about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

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The International Monetary Fund is a left-leaning bureaucracy that was set up to monitor the fixed-exchange-rate monetary system created after World War II.

Unsurprisingly, when that system broke down and the world shifted to floating exchange rates, the IMF didn’t go away. Instead, it created a new role for itself as self-styled guardian of economic stability.

Which is a bit of a joke since the international bureaucracy is most infamous for its relentless advocacy of higher taxes in economically stressed nations. So much so that I’ve labeled the IMF the Dr. Kevorkian of the world economy.

Or if that reference is a bit outdated for younger readers, let’s just say the IMF is the dumpster fire of international economics. Heck, if I was in Beijing, I would consider the bureaucracy’s recommendations for China an act of war.

To get an idea of the IMF’s ideological bias, let’s review it’s new report designed to discredit economic liberty (a.k.a., “neoliberalism” in the European sense or “classical liberalism” to Americans).

Here’s their definition.

The neoliberal agenda—a label used more by critics than by the architects of the policies— rests on two main planks. The first is increased competition—achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.

The authors describe the first plank accurately, but they mischaracterize the second plank.

At the risk of nitpicking, I would say “neoliberals” such as myself are much more direct than they imply. We want to achieve “a smaller role for the state” by reducing the burden of government spending.

Sure, we want to privatize government-controlled assets, but that’s mostly for reasons of economic efficiency rather than budgetary savings. And because we care about what actually works, we’re fans of spending caps rather than balanced budget rules.

But let’s set all that aside and get back to the report.

The IMF authors point out that governments have been moving in the right direction in recent decades.

There has been a strong and widespread global trend toward neoliberalism since the 1980s.

That sounds like good news.

And the report even includes a couple of graphs to show the trend toward free markets and limited government.

And the bureaucrats even concede that free markets and small government generate some good results.

There is much to cheer in the neoliberal agenda. The expansion of global trade has rescued millions from abject poverty. Foreign direct investment has often been a way to transfer technology and know-how to developing economies. Privatization of state-owned enterprises has in many instances led to more efficient provision of services and lowered the fiscal burden on governments.

But then the authors get to their real point. They don’t like unfettered capital flows and they don’t like so-called austerity.

However, there are aspects of the neoliberal agenda that have not delivered as expected. …removing restrictions on the movement of capital across a country’s borders (so-called capital account liberalization); and fiscal consolidation, sometimes called “austerity,” which is shorthand for policies to reduce fiscal deficits and debt levels.

Looking at these two aspects of neoliberalism, the IMF proposes “three disquieting conclusions.”

I’m much more worried about stagnation and poverty than I am about inequality, so part of the IMF’s analysis can be dismissed.

Indeed, based on the sloppiness of previous IMF work on inequality, one might be tempted to dismiss the entire report.

But let’s look at whether the authors have a point. Are there negative economic consequences for nations that allow open capital flows and/or impose budgetary restraint?

They argue that passive financial flows (indirect investment) can be destabilizing.

Some capital inflows, such as foreign direct investment—which may include a transfer of technology or human capital—do seem to boost long-term growth. But the impact of other flows—such as portfolio investment and banking and especially hot, or speculative, debt inflows—seem neither to boost growth nor allow the country to better share risks with its trading partners… Although growth benefits are uncertain, costs in terms of increased economic volatility and crisis frequency seem more evident. Since 1980, there have been about 150 episodes of surges in capital inflows in more than 50 emerging market economies…about 20 percent of the time, these episodes end in a financial crisis, and many of these crises are associated with large output declines… In addition to raising the odds of a crash, financial openness has distributional effects, appreciably raising inequality. …there is increased acceptance of controls to limit short-term debt flows that are viewed as likely to lead to—or compound—a financial crisis. While not the only tool available—exchange rate and financial policies can also help—capital controls are a viable, and sometimes the only, option when the source of an unsustainable credit boom is direct borrowing from abroad.

I certainly agree that there have been various crises in different nations, but I’m wondering whether the IMF is focusing on the symptoms rather than the underlying diseases.

What happened in the various nations, for instance, to trigger sudden capital flight? That seems to be a much more important question.

In some cases, such as Greece, the problem obviously isn’t capital flight. It’s the reckless spending by Greek politicians that created a fiscal crisis.

In other cases, such as Estonia, there was a bubble because of an overheated property market, and there’s no question the economy took a hit when that bubble popped.

But there’s a very strong case that Estonia’s open economy has generated plenty of strong growth over the years to compensate for that blip.

And it’s worth noting that criticisms of Estonia’s market-oriented policies often are based on grotesque inaccuracies, as was the case when Paul Krugman tried to blame the 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

So I’m very skeptical of the IMF’s claim that capital controls are warranted. That’s the type of policy designed to insulate governments from the consequences of bad policy.

Now let’s shift to the fiscal policy issue. The IMF report correctly states that “Curbing the size of the state is another aspect of the neoliberal agenda.”

But the authors make a big (perhaps deliberate) mistake by then blaming neoliberals for adverse consequences associated with the “austerity” imposed by various governments.

Austerity policies not only generate substantial welfare costs due to supply-side channels, they also hurt demand—and thus worsen employment and unemployment. …in practice, episodes of fiscal consolidation have been followed, on average, by drops rather than by expansions in output. On average, a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP increases the long-term unemployment rate by 0.6 percentage point.

The problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t differentiate between tax increases and spending cuts.

And since much of the “austerity” is the former variety rather than the latter, especially in Europe, it borders on malicious for the IMF to blame neoliberals (who want less spending) for the economic consequences of IMF-endorsed policies (mostly higher taxes).

Especially since research from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (!) show that spending restraint is the pro-growth way of dealing with a fiscal crisis.

Let’s now look at what the IMF authors suggest for future policy. More taxes and spending!

…policymakers should be more open to redistribution than they are. …And fiscal consolidation strategies—when they are needed—could be designed to minimize the adverse impact on low-income groups. But in some cases, the untoward distributional consequences will have to be remedied after they occur by using taxes and government spending to redistribute income. Fortunately, the fear that such policies will themselves necessarily hurt growth is unfounded.

Wow, the last couple of sentences are remarkable. The bureaucrats want readers to believe that a bigger fiscal burden of government want have any adverse consequences.

That’s a spectacular level of anti-empiricism. I guess they want us to believe that nations such as France are economically stronger economy than places such as Hong Kong.


Last but not least, here’s a final excerpt that’s worth sharing just because of these two sentences.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said the institution believed that the U.S. Congress was right to raise the country’s debt ceiling “because the point is not to contract the economy by slashing spending brutally now as recovery is picking up.”  …Policymakers, and institutions like the IMF that advise them, must be guided not by faith, but by evidence of what has worked.

We’re supposed to believe the IMF is guided by evidence when the chief bureaucrat relies on Keynesian theory to make a dishonest argument. I wish that “slashing spending” was one of the options on the table when the debt limit was raised, but the fight was at the margins over how rapidly the burden of spending should climb.

But if Lagarde can make that argument with a straight face, I guess she deserves her massive tax-free compensation package.

P.S. Since IMF economists have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule, I really wonder whether the authors of the above study were being deliberately dishonest when they blamed advocates of lower spending for the negative impact of higher taxes.

P.P.S. I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period.

P.P.P.S. The one silver lining to the dark cloud of the IMF is that the bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with something positive. IMF researchers last year found that decentralized government works better.

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