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Posts Tagged ‘China’

I explained last month that the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution mechanism is the best way of discouraging China from short-sighted mercantilist and cronyist trade policies.

The Trump Administration, though, thinks that the best response to bad Chinese trade policy is to adopt bad American trade policy.

In this interview, I fret that tit-for-tax protectionism is bad, and might even lead to a 1930s-style trade war.

The Wall Street Journal also is concerned, opining this morning about Trump’s self-destructive protectionism.

Stocks have given up their earlier gains since the President unveiled his protectionist trade agenda…the main policy concern is the new uncertainty from rising trade tension. China slapped punitive tariffs on 128 categories of American goods on Monday in retaliation for the Trump Administration’s national-security levies on steel (25%) and aluminum (10%) imports last month. …it sends a pointed message that a larger trade war would hurt American businesses, farmers in particular. …China’s retaliation is best understood as an economic and political demonstration, hitting a small number of products to signal where future blows could fall if the Trump Administration imposes punitive tariffs on $60 billion in Chinese goods to punish the theft of intellectual property. It’s notable that both Republican-leaning and Democratic states were hit. Tariffs on America’s biggest exports to China, such as soybeans and Boeing aircraft, were held in reserve. But don’t be surprised if they’re on the list if the President imposes Section 301 tariffs as he has vowed to do. …there will be significant collateral damage to innocent business bystanders, American consumers, and the overall U.S. economy. Mr. Trump risks undermining the policy gains from tax reform and deregulation that have teed up the economy for faster growth.

Amen, especially that last sentence.

As I warned in the interview, Trump is sabotaging the progress he made on tax policy and regulation.

Not a smart move since he likes to use the stock market as a report card on his performance. Live by the Dow Jones, die by the Dow Jones. Though, in this case, his protectionism means he wants to commit suicide by the Dow Jones.

Speaking of report cards, here’s a mock report card I created for the President. It’s not as amusing as the mock college transcript from Obama’s time at Columbia, but it highlights how bad policy – on spending as well as trade – is offsetting good policy.

It’s a bit different from the grades I gave on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, but more time has passed.

P.S. In the section for “teacher comments,” I suggested that the President needs extra tutoring to understand that a capital surplus (the flip side of a trade deficit) is generally a very positive indicator.

P.P.S. Let’s not forget that Trump is also threatening to deep-six NAFTA, so there are multiple threats to open global trade.

P.P.P.S. Makes me miss the Gipper even more. Heck, makes me miss Clinton, since he was in office and played a positive role when NAFTA and the WTO were ratified.

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At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not a fan of international bureaucracies. The International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are the worst multilateral institutions because of their promotion of bad policy, but I’ve also gone after the United Nations and World Bank for their periodic efforts to advance statism.

But this doesn’t mean I’m reflexively against international organizations. My criticisms of the IMF, OECD, UN, and WB are solely a function of their work to empower governments at the expense of people.

And this is why I generally like the World Trade Organization. The WTO is a Geneva-based international bureaucracy, but its mission is to empower people at the expense of governments by reducing import taxes and other trade barriers.

Which explains why I think President Trump will be making a mistake if he imposes unilateral tariffs on China. Yes, there seems to be strong evidence that China’s government is misbehaving, but I think that a positive outcome is far more likely if the U.S. government takes the issue before the WTO. Which is what I said in this short interview with Neil Cavuto.

And I’m not alone.

Bloomberg editorialized recently about this issue.

President Donald Trump…is…addressing a legitimate trade dispute: China’s alleged theft of intellectual property and forced technology transfers. …the U.S. alleges — with reason — that China has been stealing U.S. trade secrets, forcing American companies to hand over proprietary technology as a condition of doing business on the mainland, and providing state support for Chinese firms to acquire critical technology abroad. …Yet unilateral blanket tariffs of the sort the administration is considering are the wrong answer. In the first instance, they’d hurt U.S. consumers and producers even if they didn’t provoke retaliation (which they probably would). They’d undermine the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution system, perhaps fatally.

And the editorial points out that the WTO is a better place to settle the dispute.

…one can question the WTO’s effectiveness in resolving disputes of this kind: The process moves slowly. On the other hand, it works. The U.S. has won the great majority of the cases it’s taken there. The complaint against China’s practices would be stronger if it was coordinated with other governments. Japan and the European Union share U.S. concerns and would be willing to cooperate. As recently as last month, this seemed to be the strategy. …the U.S. needs to take the lead, once more, in global economic statecraft. Champion the rules-based order that has served the country and the world so well. Strengthen the WTO, don’t subvert it.

And the Wall Street Journal opined today on this topic.

…there’s no denying that Beijing’s mercantilism has fueled the political backlash against free trade. China’s increasingly predatory behavior, especially intellectual-property theft, poses a particular problem to a sustainable trading system. The question is how to respond in a way that encourages better Chinese behavior without harming the global economy and American companies and workers. …the danger is a tariff tit-for-tat that harms everyone. …Beijing is more likely to respond in kind at such a broad public assault on its goods.

The WSJ notes that China’s behavior has left something to be desired.

Beijing has turned to mercantilism over the last decade. …The government gives subsidies in several forms, including loans from state-owned banks on easy terms and low interest rates. …Along with subsidies and government help in acquiring foreign companies, the policy explicitly requires foreign companies to transfer intellectual property in return for access to the Chinese market. …Beijing has also stepped up its use of regulations to discriminate against foreign companies. …All of these policies violate WTO agreements. …The China problem now is the predatory use of government power to punish foreign competitors to benefit Chinese companies.

The WSJ doesn’t necessarily think the WTO is the right vehicle to respond, but it definitely supports a plurilateral approach.

…remedies should be based on the principle of reciprocity. If Beijing pressures multinational car companies to build electric cars in China, the U.S., EU and Japan could impose a tariff on Chinese-made vehicles and restrict the transfer of related technology. This would avoid the Trump Administration’s approach of tariffs on a wide variety of goods, a policy that alienates allies and raises the risk of a wider trade war. A targeted approach…could even strengthen the WTO as China would have an interest in modernizing and using the organization’s courts to resolve the disputes.

I’m a fiscal wonk rather than a trade wonk, so I’m open to the notion that perhaps a plurilateral approach is better than the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism.

Though it’s worth noting that the United States has a very high batting average when bringing cases to the WTO.

Dan Ikenson, director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, reviewed WTO trade disputes involving the U.S. from 1995 to March of this year. He found that the U.S. prevailed in 91 percent of cases that it brought against other countries. “When the United States has been a complainant (as it has in 114 of 522 WTO disputes over 22 years — more than any other WTO member) it has prevailed on 91 percent of adjudicated issues,” he wrote.

I’ll close by noting that China’s bad policies don’t make it an enemy. The European Union is a semi-protectionist bloc and it isn’t our enemy either.

My goal is to simply point out that China’s approach to trade can be improved and should be improved. And since the country has moved in the right direction on overall economic policy (with very positive effects for the Chinese people), my hope is that coordinated opposition to Chinese mercantilism will have a positive effect.

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Happy New Year!

We listed yesterday the good and bad policy developments of 2017, so now let’s speculate about potential victories and defeats in 2018.

Here are two things I hope will happen this year.

  • Welfare reform – If my friends and contacts on Capitol Hill are feeding my accurate information, we may see a bigger and better version of the 1996 welfare reform in 2018. The core concept would be to abolish the dozens of means-tested programs (i.e., redistribution programs targeted at low-income people) in Washington and replace them with a “block grant.” This could be good news for federal taxpayers if the annual block grant is designed to grow slowly. And it could be good news for poor people since state government would then have the ability and flexibility to design policies that help liberate recipients from government dependency.
  • Collapse of Venezuela – Given the disastrous deterioration of the Venezuelan economy, it’s difficult to envision how the Maduro dictatorship can survive the year. Yes, I know the regime is willing to use the military to suppress any uprising, but I suspect hungry and desperate people are more likely to take chances. My fingers are crossed that the corrupt government is overthrown and Venezuela becomes another Chile (hopefully without a transition period of military rule).

Here are two things I fear may happen in 2018.

  • Pulling out of NAFTA – America dodged a bullet in 2017. Given Trump’s protectionist instincts, I worried he would do something very dangerous on trade. But pain deferred is not the same thing as pain avoided. The President has made some very worrisome noises about NAFTA and it’s possible he may use executive authority to scrap a deal that has been good for the United States.
  • A bad version of Brexit – Given the statist mindset in Brussels and the continent’s awful demographics, voting to leave the European Union was the right decision for our British friends. Simply stated, it makes no sense to stay on a sinking ship, even if it sinking slowly. But the net benefits of Brexit depend on whether the United Kingdom seizes the moment and adopts pro-growth policies such as tax cuts and free-trade pacts. Sadly, those good reforms don’t appear likely and it appears instead that the feckless Tory leadership will choose to become a satellite member of the EU, which means living under the thumb of Brussels and paying for harmonization, bureaucratization, and centralization. The worst possible outcome in the short run, though at least the U.K. is better positioned to fully extricate itself in the future.

I’m adding a new feature to my hopes-and-fears column this year.

These are issues where I think it’s likely that something consequential may occur, but I can’t figure out whether I should be optimistic or pessimistic. I sort of did this last year, listing Obamacare reform and Italian fiscal crisis as both hopes and fears.

It turns out I was right to be afraid about what would happen with Obamacare and I was wrong (or too early) to think something would happen with Italy.

Here are three things that could be consequential in 2018, but I can’t figure out whether to be hopeful or fearful.

  • Infrastructure reform or boondoggle – I put an “infrastructure boondoggle” as one of my fears last year, but the President and Congress postponed dealing with the issue. But it will be addressed this year. I’m still afraid the result may be a traditional pile of pork-barrel spending, but it’s also possible that legislation could be a vehicle for market-based reform.
  • Normalization of monetary policy – I try to stay clear of monetary policy, but I also recognize that it’s a very important issue. Indeed, if I was to pick the greatest risk to the economy, it’s that easy-money policies (such as artificially low interest rates) have created a bubble. And bursting bubbles can be very messy, as we learned (or should have learned) in 2008. The Federal Reserve supposedly is in the process of “normalizing” monetary policy. I very much hope they can move in the right direction without rattling markets and/or bursting bubbles.
  • A China bubble – Speaking of macroeconomic risks, I’m very glad that China has partially liberalized and I’m ecstatic that reform has dramatically reduced severe poverty, but I also worry that the government plays far too large a role in the banking sector and interferes far too much in the allocation of capital. I’m guessing this eventually leads to some sort of hiccup (or worse) for the Chinese economy, and all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that the government responds with additional liberalization rather than the bad policies being advocated by the OECD and IMF.

By the way, I fully expect the Democrats to sweep the 2018 elections. And since the Party is now much farther to the left than it used to be, that could lead to very bad news in 2019 – particularly if Trump unleashes his inner Nixon.

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When Ronald Reagan slashed tax rates in America in the 1980s, the obvious direct effect was more prosperity in America.

But the under-appreciated indirect effect of Reaganomics was that it helped generate more prosperity elsewhere in the world.

Not because Americans had higher income and could buy more products from home and abroad (though that is a nice fringe benefit), but rather because the Reagan tax cuts triggered a virtuous cycle of tax competition. Politicians in other countries had to lower their tax rates because of concerns that jobs and investment were migrating to America (Margaret Thatcher also deserves some credit since she also dramatically reduced tax rates and put even more competitive pressure on other nations to do the same thing).

If you look at the data for developed nations, the average top income tax rate in 1980 was more than 67 percent. It’s now closer to 40 percent.

And because even countries like Germany and France enacted supply-side reforms, the global economy enjoyed a 25-year renaissance of growth and prosperity.

Unfortunately, there’s been some slippage in the wrong direction in recent years, probably caused in part be the erosion of tax competition (politicians are more likely to grab additional money if they think targeted victims don’t have escape options).

But we may be poised for a new virtuous cycle of tax competition, at least with regards to business taxation. A big drop in the U.S. corporate tax rate will pressure other nations to lower their taxes as well. And if new developments from China and Europe are accurate, I’ve been underestimating the potential positive impact.

Let’s start with news from China, where some officials are acting as if dropping the U.S. corporate tax rate to 20 percent is akin to economic warfare.

U.S. tax cuts—the biggest passed since those during the presidency of Ronald Reagan three decades ago—have Beijing in a bind. Prominent in the new tax policy are generous reductions in the corporate tax and a rationalization of the global tax scheme. Both are expected to draw capital and skilled labor back to the United States. …In April, Chinese state-controlled media slammed the tax cuts, accusing the U.S. leadership of risking a “tax war”… On April 27, state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted a Chinese financial official as saying, “We’ve made our stance clear: We oppose tax competition.” …Beijing has good reason to be afraid. …“Due to the tax cut, the capital—mostly from the manufacturing industry—will flow back to the U.S.,” Chen said.

While Chinese officials are worried about tax competition, they have a very effective response. They can cut tax rates as well.

…the Communist Party had promised to implement financial policy that would be more beneficial for the general public, but has not put this into practice. Instead, Beijing has kept and expanded a regime whereby heavy taxes do not benefit the people…, but are used to prop up inefficient state-owned enterprises… Chinese officials and scholars are considering the necessity of implementing their own tax reforms to keep up with the Trump administration. …Zhu Guangyao, a deputy minister of finance, said in a meeting that it was “indeed impossible” to “ignore the international effects” of the American tax cut, and that “proactive measures” needed to be taken to adjust accordingly. …a Chinese state-run overseas publication called “Xiakedao” came out with a report saying that while Trump’s tax cuts put pressure on China, the pressure “can all the same be transformed into an opportunity for reform.” It remains to be seen whether communist authorities are willing to accept a hit to their tax revenue to balance the economy and let capital flow into the hands of the private sector.

The Wall Street Journal also has a story on how China’s government might react to U.S. tax reform.

…economic mandarins in Beijing are focusing on a potentially… immediate threat from Washington— Donald Trump’s tax overhaul. In the Beijing leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, officials are putting in place a contingency plan to combat consequences for China of U.S. tax changes… What they fear is…sapping money out of China by making the U.S. a more attractive place to invest.

Pardon me for digressing, but isn’t it remarkable that nominally communist officials in China clearly understand that lower tax rates will boost investment while some left-leaning fiscal “experts” in America still want us to believe that lower tax won’t help growth.

But let’s get back to the main point.

An official involved in Beijing’s deliberations called Washington’s tax plan a “gray rhino,” an obvious danger in China’s economy that shouldn’t be ignored. …While the tax overhaul isn’t directly aimed at Beijing, …China will be squeezed. Under the tax plan now going through the U.S. legislative process, America’s corporate levy could drop to about 20% from 35%. Over the next few years, economists say, that could spur manufacturers—whether American or Chinese—to opt to set up plants in the U.S. rather than China.

It’s an open question, though, whether China will respond with bad policy or good policy.

Imposing capital controls to limit the flow of money to the United States would be an unfortunate reaction. Using American reform as an impetus for Chinese reform, by contrast, would be serendipitous.

The sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code, estimated to result in $1.4 trillion in U.S. cuts over a decade, is also serving as a wake-up call for Beijing, which for years has dragged its feet on revamping China’s own rigid tax system. Chinese businesses have long complained about high taxes, and the government has pledged to reduce the levies on them. …Chinese companies face a welter of other taxes and fees their U.S. counterparts don’t, including a 17% value-added tax. …Chinese employers pay far-higher payroll taxes. Welfare and social insurance taxes cost between 40% and 100% of a paycheck in China. World Bank figures for 2016 show that total tax burden on Chinese businesses are among the highest of major economies: 68% of profits, compared with 44% in the U.S. and 40.6% on average world-wide. The figures include national and local income taxes, value-added or sales taxes and any mandatory employer contributions for welfare and social security.

I very much hope Chinese officials respond to American tax cuts with their own supply-side reforms. I’ve applauded the Chinese government in the past for partial economic liberalization. Those policies have dramatically reduced poverty and been very beneficial for the country.

Lower tax rates could be the next step to boost living standards in China.

By the way, the Chinese aren’t the only ones paying attention to fiscal developments in the United States. The GOP tax plan also is causing headaches in Europe, as reported by CNN.

Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy have written to Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin… The letter argues that proposed changes to the U.S. tax code could give American companies an advantage over foreign rivals. …They said the provision could also tax the profits of foreign businesses that do not have a permanent base in the U.S. …The finance ministers said they opposed another measure in the Senate bill that could benefit American companies.

I have two responses. First, I actually agree with some of the complaints in the letter about selected provisions in the tax bill (see, for instance, Veronique de Rugy’s analysis in National Review about the danger of the BAT-like excise tax). We should be welcoming investment from foreign companies, not treating them like potential cash cows for Uncle Sam.

That being said, European officials are throwing stones in a glass house. They are the ones pushing the OECD’s initiative on “base erosion and profit shifting,” which is basically a scheme to extract more money from American multinational firms. And let’s also remember that the European Commission is also going after American companies using the novel argument that low taxes are a form of “state aid.”

Second, I think the Europeans are mostly worried about the lower corporate rate. German officials, for instance, have already been cited for their fear of a “ruinous era of tax competition.” And politicians at the European Parliament have been whining about a “race to the bottom.”

So I’ll give them the same advice I offered to China. Respond to Americans tax cuts by doing the right thing for your citizens. Boost growth and wages with lower tax rates.

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I’ve written (many, many times) about how the best way to help the poor is to focus on economic growth rather than inequality.

After all, in a genuine market economy (as opposed to socialism, cronyism, or some other form of statism), the poor aren’t poor because some people are rich.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of why it is a mistake to focus on inequality.

A study by five Chinese scholars looked at income inequality over time in their country. Their research, published in 2010, focused mostly on the methodological challenges of obtaining good long-run data and understanding the impact of urban and rural populations. But one clear conclusion is that inequality has increased in China.

This paper investigates the influences of the income overlap part on the nationwide Gini coefficient. Then we present a new approach to estimating the Chinese Gini ratio from 1978 to 2006, which avoids the shortcomings of current data sources. In line with the results, the authors further probe the trend of Chinese income disparity. …income inequality has been rising in China. …the national Gini ratio of 2006 is 1.52 times more than that of 1978.

Here’s a chart based on their data (combined with post-2006 data from Statista). It looks at historical trends for the Gini coefficient (a value of “1” is absolute inequality, with one person accumulating all the income in a society, whereas a value of “0” is absolute equality, with everyone having the same level of income.

As you can see, there’s been a significant increase in inequality.

My leftist friends are conditioned to think this is a terrible outcome, in large part because they incorrectly think the economy is a fixed pie.

And when you have that distorted view, higher absolute incomes for the rich necessarily imply lower absolute incomes for the poor.

My response (beyond pointing out that the economy is not a fixed pie), is to argue that the goal should be economic growth and poverty reduction. I don’t care if Bill Gates is getting richer at a faster rate than a poor person. I just want a society where everyone has the chance to climb the economic ladder.

And I also point out that it’s hard to design pro-growth policies that won’t produce more income for rich people. Yes, there are some reforms (licensing liberalization, cutting agriculture subsidies, reducing protectionism, shutting the Ex-Im Bank, reforming Social Security, ending bailouts) that will probably be disproportionately beneficial for those with low incomes, but those policies also will produce growth that will help upper-income people.*

But I’m digressing. The main goal of today’s column is to look at the inequality data from above and then add the following data on poverty reduction.

Here’s a chart I shared back in March. As you can see, there’s been a very impressive reduction in the number of people suffering severe deprivation in rural China (where incomes historically have been lowest).

Consider, now, both charts together.

The bottom line is that economic liberalization resulted in much faster growth. And because some people got richer at a faster rate than others got richer, that led to both an increase in inequality and a dramatic reduction in poverty.

Therefore, what happened in China creates a type of Rorschach test for folks on the left.

  • A well-meaning leftist will look at all this data and say, “I wish somehow everyone got richer at the same rate, but market-based reforms in China are wonderful because so many people escaped poverty.”
  • A spiteful leftist will look at all this data and say, “Because upper-income people benefited even more than low-income people, market-based reforms in China were a failure and should be reversed.”

Needless to say, the spiteful leftists are the ones who hate the rich more than they love the poor (here are some wise words from Margaret Thatcher on such people).

*To the extend that some upper-income taxpayers obtain unearned income via government intervention, then they may lose out from economic liberalization. Ethical rich people, however, will earn more income if there are pro-growth reforms.

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The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has published a 136-page “Economic Survey” of China.

My first reaction is to wonder why the Paris-based bureaucracy needs any publication, much less such a long document, when Economic Freedom of the World already publishes an annual ranking that precisely and concisely identifies the economic strengths and weaknesses of various nations.

A review of the EFW data would quickly show that China doesn’t do a good job in any area, but that the nation’s biggest problems are a bloated public sector and a suffocating regulatory burden.

Though it’s worth noting that China’s mediocre scores today are actually a big improvement. Back in 1980, before China began to liberalize, it received a dismal score of 3.64 (on a 1-10 scale). Today’s 6.45 score isn’t great, but there’s been a big step in the right direction.

One of the most impressive changes is that the score for the trade category has jumped from 2.72 to 6.78 (i.e., moving from protectionism toward open trade is good for growth).

I cite this EFW data because part of me wonders why the OECD couldn’t be more efficient and simply put out a 5-page document that urges reforms – such as a spending cap and deregulation – that would address China’s biggest weaknesses?

To be fair, though, the number of pages isn’t what matters. It’s the quality of the analysis and advice. So let’s dig into the OECD’s China Survey and see whether it provides a road map for greater Chinese prosperity.

But before looking at recommendations, let’s start with some good news. This chart shows a dramatic reduction in poverty and it is one of the most encouraging displays of data I’ve ever seen.

Keep in mind, by the way, that China’s economic statistics may not be fully trustworthy. And it’s also worth noting that China’s rural poverty measure of CNY2300 is less than $350 per year.

Notwithstanding these caveats, it certainly appears that there’s been a radical reduction in genuine material deprivation in China. That’s a huge triumph for the partial economic liberalization we see in the EFW numbers.

Now let’s see whether the OECD is suggesting policies that will generate more positive charts in future years.

The good news is that the bureaucrats are mostly sensible on regulatory matters and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Here are a few excerpts from the document’s executive summary.

Business creation has been made easier through the removal and unification of licenses. …Gradually remove guarantees to SOEs and other public entities to reduce contingent liabilities. …Reduce state ownership in commercially oriented…sectors. Let unviable SOEs go bankrupt, notably in sectors suffering from over-capacity.

The bad news is that the OECD wants the government to increase China’s fiscal burden. I’m not joking.

Policy reforms can greatly enhance the redistributive impact of the tax-and-transfer system. …Increase central and provincial government social assistance transfers…increase tax progressivity. Implement a broad-based nationwide recurrent tax on immovable property and consider an inheritance tax.

This is bad advice for any nation at any point, but it’s especially misguided for China because of looming demographic change.

Here’s another chart from the report. It shows a staggering four-fold increase in the share of old people relative to working-age people in the country.

This chart should be setting off alarm bells. The Chinese government should be taking steps to lower the burden of government spending and implement personal retirement accounts so there will be real savings to finance this demographic shift.

But the OECD report actually encourages less savings and more redistribution.

…rebalancing of the economy towards consumption is key. …Social infrastructure needs to be further developed…and the tax and transfer system made more progressive. …tax exemptions on interest from government bonds and savings accounts at Chinese banks could be abolished…introduction of inheritance tax.

What’s especially noteworthy is that the personal income tax in China (as is the case in almost all developing nations) only collects a trivial amount of revenue.

In 2016, PIT revenue amounted to 1.4 percent of GDP.

So why not do something bold and pro-growth, such as abolish that repugnant levy and make China a beacon for entrepreneurship and investment?

Needless to say, that’s not a recommendation you’ll find in a report from the pro-tax OECD.

And given the bureaucracy’s dismal track record, you won’t be surprised that there’s lots of rhetoric about the supposed problem of inequality, all of which is used to justify higher taxes and more redistribution.

The OECD instead should focus on growth and poverty mitigation, goals that naturally lend themselves to pro-market reforms.

Which brings me to the thing that’s always been baffling. Why doesn’t China simply copy the ultra-successful policies of Hong Kong, which has been a “special administrative region” of China for two decades?

Hong Kong has the policies – a spending cap, very little redistribution, open trade, private Social Security, etc – that China needs to become a rich nation.

If the leadership in Beijing has been wise enough to leave Hong Kong’s policies in place, why haven’t they been astute enough to apply them to the entire country?

Every so often, I think China is moving in that direction, only to then come across reasons to be pessimistic.

P.S. The OECD’s China report was predictably disappointing, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the IMF’s report on China, which I characterized half-jokingly as a declaration of economic war.

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I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix..

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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