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Posts Tagged ‘Demographics’

Despite the fact that Social Security is an ever-increasing fiscal burden with a 75-year cash-flow deficit of nearly $45 trillion, many politicians in Washington have been trying to buy votes with proposals to expand the program (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, etc).

A new working paper from the European Central Bank gives us some insights on what will happen if they succeed.

Authored by Daniel Baksa, Zsuzsa Munkacsi, and Carolin Nerlich, the study look at the long-run impact of related policies in Europe, using Germany and Slovakia as examples.

Here’s their description of the study.

In view of the adverse macroeconomic and fiscal implications of ageing, many European countries have implemented significant pension reforms… More recently, however, the reform progress has stalled, and despite an unchanged demographic outlook, several European countries reversed, or plan to do so, parts of their previously adopted pension reforms. In this paper we offer a framework that allows us to evaluate the macroeconomic and fiscal costs of pension reform reversals. …By using a general equilibrium model with overlapping generations we can account for feedback effects between changes in pension parameters, pension expenditures and macroeconomic variables. …The model is calibrated for Germany and Slovakia.

Before sharing their findings, here’s a look at how demographics are a ticking time bomb for Europe.

The yellow dots are the 2016 numbers for the old-age dependency ratio (the number of people over 65 compared to the 15-64 working-age population) and the red dots show how that ratio will deteriorate by 2070 (the numbers for the United States are similarly grim).

These bad numbers mean that Europe’s economic outlook will worsen over time.

…population ageing has adverse macroeconomic and fiscal implications. …the results show an increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio by around 100 percentage points until 2070, compared to the initial period, for both Germany and Slovakia. Moreover, real GDP per capita is projected to decline by almost 14% in Germany and 9% in Slovakia, compared to the initial period.

But it’s possible for the numbers to get better or worse, depending on changes to public policy.

…similar to other studies we find evidence that pension reforms help to contain the adverse implications of ageing… In particular, increases in the retirement age appear to help to alleviate ageing pressures most. …we find strong evidence for the presumption that reversals of pension reforms are potentially very costly. In fact, reform reversals would not only result in higher aggregate pension expenditure and public debt-to-GDP ratios, but would in most cases also exacerbate the adverse macroeconomic impact of ageing.

Unfortunately, public policy is now trending in the wrong direction. Here’s what’s been happening in Germany and Slovakia.

Germany recently decided to cap the decline in the benefit ratio and the increase in the contribution rate until 2025 at certain levels, and is considering whether to extend this cap even until 2040. Slovakia decided to break the automatic link between changes in life expectancy and retirement age, by capping the retirement age at 64 years. …in the reversal scenario for Germany we freeze the benefit ratio at its current level of 48% and assume that the contribution rate would not exceed the threshold of 20% until 2040. With this reform reversal scenario we assume that the agreed freeze of the benefits ratio and contribution rate until 2025 will be ex-tended until 2040. In Slovakia, we assume the retirement age to stop increasing from the year 2045 onwards.

And what do they find when countries backtrack on reform?

Here’s what they estimated in Germany.

For Germany, we find that the reform reversal would imply sizeable costs (see Table 6, column “reform reversal”). Specifically, by 2070, the increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio can be expected to be ceteris paribus almost 60 percentage points higher than under the baseline scenario, as a result of higher pension expenditures, adverse feedback effects and lower contribution rates.

For those interested, here’s Table 6, which I’ve augmented by highlighting in red the most relevant changes. Yes, the debt increases compared to the baseline, but I think it’s equally important (if not more important) to see how young people are hurt and how the burden of government spending goes up.

Now let’s see what the authors found for Slovakia.

…we quantify the fiscal costs of the reform reversal in Slovakia by comparing the debt impact under the reform reversal scenario with that under the baseline scenario. Our results show that such a reform reversal would be very costly. In fact, the increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio would be more than 50 percentage points higher than the estimated increase of around 100 percentage points of GDP under the baseline scenario (see Table 7).

Here’s Table 7, and again I have highlighted in red the increase in debt as well as the data showing additional harm to young people and a much bigger increase in the burden of government spending.

So what do these findings mean for the United States?

Let’s explain using a homemade infographic. I’ve put four options for Social Security on a spectrum. Here’s what they mean.

  • “Expand Social Security” means more taxes and spending in pay-as-you-go systems that are already costly and out of balance.
  • The “Status Quo” is a typical pay-as-you-go-system (where the United States is now and where Germany and Slovakia were before their reforms).
  • Conventional Reform” means trying to stabilize a pay-as-you-go system by demanding that workers pay more while promising to give them less (what Germany and Slovakia did).
  • The most market-friendly position is “Personal Retirement Accounts,” which transforms creaky pay-as-you-go systems into real individual savings.

Here’s the infographic, including arrows to indicate that some options mean more government and others mean more prosperity.

What Germany and Slovakia did was move from “Status Quo” to “Conventional Reform.” But now they’re backtracking on those reforms and shifting back to the old version of the “Status Quo.”

In other words, a move in the direction of “More Government” and the European Central Bank’s study shows such a step will have negative consequences.

In the United States, by contrast, some folks on the left want America to move from “Status Quo” to “Expand Social Security.”

Like Germany and Slovakia, we’d be moving in the wrong direction. But the damage for the U.S. presumably would be worse because we didn’t first take a step in the right direction.

P.S. If you want to learn more about the best option, Australia, Denmark, Chile, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Faroe Islands, and Sweden are a few of the many jurisdictions that have fully or partially shifted to systems based on real savings.

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Every so often, I share very weird stories about government regulations, from both America and around the world. And when I say weird, I’m not exaggerating.

But we also have some strange examples of tax loopholes.

I’m not talking about corporate jets, which should be characterized as a business expense.

Instead, I’m referring to bizarre examples of income that is arbitrarily exempt from tax.

The weirdest example in the United States is from Nevada (probably because politicians have a conflict of interest).

Today I want to write about a new tax loophole in Poland.

Polish lawmakers have approved a measure that would exonerate most workers under the age of 26 from income taxes… The bill would exonerate workers under the age of 26 from Poland’s 18 percent personal income tax for those whose gross earnings don’t surpass 85,500 zlotys (20,000 euros, $22,500) per year. That level is higher than Poland’s average income… Some two million people could benefit from the measure.

So what’s motivating this example of age-based tax discrimination?

Poland has long been haemorrhaging skilled workers to other EU states where they can find better paying jobs, posing both a long-term demographic risk and short-term problem finding enough labourers to continue the country’s streak of economic growth since the fall of communism in 1989.

I certainly agree that Poland faces a demographic challenge (along with other nations in Eastern Europe), both because of emigration and low birth rates.

And I also agree that Poland’s economy has been relatively successful since escaping the evil of communism.

But I’m not very confident that this policy is the right recipe for continued prosperity.

  • First, I don’t like discrimination in the tax code, whether based on the source of income, the use of income, the level of income, or – in this case – the age at which income is earned.
  • Second, this policy doesn’t affect social insurance taxes and value-added taxes, which are actually the biggest burden for ordinary workers in many Eastern European nations.
  • Third, unless Poland’s government imposes some spending discipline, a tax preference for young people may lead to higher taxes on other groups, thus offsetting any economic benefit.

To be sure, I’m glad Poland is addressing the issue by lowering taxes rather than by creating new programs and subsidies, as we’ve seen in some other European nations.

I’m simply not expecting big results.

P.S. You can click here to peruse other oddball examples of international tax policy.

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It’s not easy picking the most pessimistic chart about Japan.

The country suffered several decades of economic stagnation following the collapse of a bubble about three decades ago.

That means it’s a bit of a challenge to identify the worst economic numbers.

  • Is it the data on ever-rising levels of government debt?
  • Is it the data on an ever-rising burden of taxation?
  • Or is it the data on an aging population and falling birthrate?

For what it’s worth, I thought the tax data was the most depressing.

But now there’s a new challenger for the grimmest chart.

I’m currently in Japan, where it’s almost bedtime. I just heard a speech from the governor of the Tokyo Prefecture.

As part of her remarks, she shared a slide showing how Japan has plummeted in the IMD competitiveness rankings.

I don’t have her chart, but I found another version with the same data.

And Japan has dropped to #30 in the recently released 2018 version.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that Economic Freedom of the World shows a similar decline.

Japan was ranked in the top-10 back in 1990, but now it’s dropped to #41.

This is not quite as pronounced as Argentina’s drop in the rankings for per-capita GDP, but it’s definitely a sign that something’s gone wrong in the Land of the Rising Sun.

P.S. Japan has a very strong entry in the contest for the world’s most inane regulation.

P.P.S. And if there was a contest for the most ineffective form of government waste, Japan would have a very strong entry for that prize as well.

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I’m a big fan of many of the economic reforms that have been implemented in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

All three of the Baltic nations rank highly according to Economic Freedom of the World. Estonia and Lithuania are tied for #13, and Latvia isn’t far behind at #23.

Rather impressive for nations that suffered decades of communist enslavement.

But this doesn’t mean I’m optimistic for the future of these countries.

Simply stated, they need a lot more reform to prepare themselves for demographic decline.

And demographic decline is a huge issue, in large part because young people are moving away. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, nine of the world’s countries most at risk of losing citizens over the next few decades are former East bloc nations. Porous borders and greater opportunity in the west have lured people away. …The trend is hitting especially hard in the Baltics. Latvia, with a current population of 1.96 million, has lost about 25 percent of its residents since throwing off Soviet control in 1991. The U.N. predicts that by 2050, it will have lost an additional 22 percent of its current population…and by 2100, 41 percent. In Estonia, with a population of 1.32 million, the U.N. foresees a 13 percent decline by 2050 and a 32 percent drop by 2100. And in Lithuania, the current population of 2.87 million is expected to drop by 17 percent by 2050. By 2100, it will have lost 34 percent. …Latvian demographer Mihails Hazans said that, as of 2014, one in three ethnic Latvians age 25 to 34 — and a quarter of all Latvians with higher education — lived abroad.

Part of the issue is also fertility.

Here’s a chart from the World Bank showing that all three Baltic nations are way below the replacement rate.

The combination of these two factors helps to explain this map.

As you can see, the Baltics don’t quite face the same challenges as Moldova.

But that’s the only silver lining in these grim numbers.

By the way, people should be free to emigrate.

And women should be free to choose how many children to have.

But when a country also has a welfare state and – over time – there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young taxpayers, that’s a recipe for some sort of Greek-style fiscal crisis.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.

The Baltic nations need to copy Hong Kong. Fertility rates are even lower there, but the jurisdiction doesn’t face a big long-run fiscal challenge since people mostly rely on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer welfare states.

P.S. One of the reasons I like the Baltic nations is that they cut spending (actual spending cuts, not fake DC-style reductions in planned increases) when they were hit by the global financial crisis last decade.

P.P.S. Even better, Paul Krugman wound up beclowning himself by trying to blame Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

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When I give speeches on the importance of public policy, I frequently share data showing that pro-market nations are relatively prosperous when compared to countries with statist policies.

One of the most dramatic examples is South Korean prosperity versus North Korean deprivation.

It’s not that South Korea is perfect. After all, it only ranks #35 according to Economic Freedom of the World.

But that’s enough economic liberty to be in the “most free” category. And this helps to explain why South Korean living standards have climbed dramatically compared to the economic hellhole of North Korea (and you see something similar if you compare Venezuela and South Korea).

I’m definitely not the only person to notice the difference between the two Koreas. Here are some excerpts from one of Richard Rahn’s columns in 2017.

In 1960, South Korea and North Korea were similar in their poverty. Now, 50-plus years later, South Korea has a per-capita income more than 20 times that of North Korea, at approximately $38,000 per year, which is higher than that of Spain or Italy. South Koreans have gone from a per-capita income in 1970 that was about 10 percent of the average American to almost 70 percent today. …Koreans in both the North and South come from the same genetic stock, speak the same language, and occupy adjoining pieces of land with much of the same topography and limited natural resources. North Korea is the ultimate consequence of socialism, which always contains the seeds of its own destruction. Socialism goes against human nature, requiring its government to become increasingly authoritarian — North Korea being Exhibit A.

But Richard also warned that South Korea can’t rest on its laurels.

While economic growth per year averaged more than 9 percent from 1963 to 1990, it has now slowed down and last year was only 2.8 percent…a sharp drop from earlier decades. There is too much unneeded and counterproductive regulation, including the lack of ease of creating new businesses, barriers to imports and inward foreign investment. By any measure, South Korea has been a great success, but probably not as much as it could have been or can be if it followed more of a classic free trade and more limited-government model as practiced by Hong Kong and others. The country is increasingly exhibiting the disease of most other rich, developed democracies by allowing itself to be slowly seduced into the promise of more government services and attendant regulation, rather than the tougher and more competitive policies that created the wealth. Will South Korea avoid the stagnation of Japan and much of Europe? The jury is still out.

The jury may still be out, but there is growing evidence that South Korea is heading in the wrong direction because the nation’s relatively new President in increasing the burden of government.

Here are some passages from a report in the Japan Times.

Moon Jae-in began his second full year as South Korea’s president with a reminder of what didn’t work in the first — namely his economic policies. …The self-styled “jobs president” has seen his once sky-high poll numbers tumble… Moon, a progressive, was swept into office in 2017 promising a reversal from the conglomerate-focused economic agenda of ousted President Park Geun-hye. But his plan to raise the minimum wage 11 percent disappointed… More than three-quarters of the 30 experts surveyed by Bloomberg News last month predicted that employment growth would slow this year, in part because of the wage hike. …In a speech at his news conference Thursday, Moon…pledged to improve the safety net…and fix what he described as “the worst forms of polarized wealth and economic inequality in the world.” …More than half of South Koreans surveyed in another Gallup poll last month said that the administration needed “to focus on economic growth, rather than income distribution.”

By the way, the article doesn’t even mention that South Korea faces a major demographic challenge.

It has a catastrophically low fertility rate, which means that the tax-and-transfer welfare state will become increasingly unaffordable as the ratio of workers to recipients shifts in the wrong direction.

Entitlement reform is the sensible answer to this problem (see Hong Kong, for example).

But that’s obviously not happening under President Moon. Indeed, he wants to make matters worse by expanding the welfare state.

Some people in South Korea realize that demographics are a problem for their nation.

The U.K.-based Express looks at their attempted solution.

Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities say the courses on dating, sex, love and relationships target a generation which is shunning traditional family lives. …as part of the course, students have to date three classmates for a month each. …The course has expanded to Kyong Hee university, which offers “Love and Marriage” classes and Inha university in Incheon, a specialist engineering college, where students can now sign up to lessons on prioritising success and love. In 2016 the number of marriages hit its lowest since 1977, according to data from the government agency Statistics Korea. …The crude marriage rate – the annual number of marriages per 1,000 people – was 5.5 last year, compared with 295.1 when statistics began in 1970. Seoul has spent about £50 billion trying to boost the birth rate.

I’m skeptical of this approach, regardless of how much money the government spends.

Policy makers should focus instead on things they can control, such as fiscal policy and regulatory policy.

And this is why South Korea’s lurch to the left is so disappointing. Politicians are making things worse rather than better.

Even the New York Times is reporting that Moon’s statist agenda isn’t working.

Under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea has raised taxes and the minimum wage in the name of economic growth. So far, it hasn’t worked out as planned. Growth has slowed, unemployment has risen and small-business owners…are complaining. …With his progressive policies, President Moon is trying to tackle some of the same economic problems that plague the United States and much of the developed world. They include a widening wealth gap, slower growth and stagnant wages. …South Korea’s troubles suggest the limits of the state in solving economic problems, especially without addressing the underlying structural issues. …After his election in May 2017, Mr. Moon undertook a sharp shift in economic policy. He supported higher wages, tighter restrictions on working hours and greater welfare spending, funded by tax increases on companies and high-income earners. …Mr. Moon has paid a steep political price for his agenda. His approval rating has plummeted from 84 percent in mid-2017 to 45 percent in the most recent Gallup poll. …The 2019 budget represents the sharpest increase in spending in a decade… The minimum wage has also gone up again for 2019, by 11 percent.

More taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more intervention. Who does Moon think he is, Barack Obama or Richard Nixon?

On a serious note, it surely says something that even the New York Times is forced to acknowledge that statist policies backfire.

Let’s close by looking at how South Korea’s economic freedom score has evolved over time. As you can see, there was a lot of economic liberalization between 1975-2005. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that economic liberty has declined since the mid-2000s.

The drop is modest, at least in absolute terms. But it’s also important (as I explained when looking at Italy) to look at relative competitiveness.

South Korea’s current score of 7.53 isn’t that much lower than its 7.67 score in 2006. But that slight drop, along with pro-reforms steps that other nations have taken, means that South Korea is now ranked #35 instead of #20.

And the current scores are based on policy in 2016, before Moon moved South Korea in the direction of more statism. This doesn’t bode well.

P.S. I’m not expecting South Korea to become another Hong Kong or Singapore, but it should at least seek incremental progress rather than incremental deterioration. Taiwan is a good example of that approach.

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The world is in the middle of a dramatic demographic transition caused by increasing lifespans and falling birthrates.

One consequence of this change is that traditional tax-and-transfer, pay-as-you-go retirement schemes (such as Social Security in the United States) are basically bankrupt.

The problem is so acute that even the normally statist bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are expressing considerable sympathy for reforms that would allow much greater reliance on private savings (shifting to what is known as “funded” systems).

Countries should introduce funded arrangements gradually… Policymakers should carefully assess the transition as it may put an additional, short-term, strain on public finances… Tax rules should be straightforward, stable and consistent across all retirement savings plans. …Countries with an “EET” tax regime should maintain the deferred taxation structure… Funded, private pensions may be expected to support broader economic growth and accelerate the development of local capital markets by creating a pool of pension savings that must be invested. The role of funded, private pensions in economic development is likely to become more important still as countries place a higher priority on the objective of labour force participation. Funded pensions increase the incentive to work and save and by encouraging older workers to stay in the labour market they can help to address concerns about the sustainability and adequacy of public PAYG pensions in the face of demographic changes.

Here’s a chart from the OECD report. It shows that many developed nations already have fully or partly privatized systems.

By the way, I corrected a glaring mistake. The OECD chart shows Australia as blue. I changed it to white since they have a fully private Social Security system Down Under.

The report highlights some of the secondary economic benefits of private systems.

Funded pensions offer a number of advantages compared to PAYG pensions. They provide stronger incentives to participate in the labor market and to save for retirement. They create a pool of savings that can be put to productive use in the broader economy. Increasing national savings or reallocating savings to longer-term investment supports the development of financial markets. …More domestic savings reduces dependency on foreign savings to finance necessary investment. Higher investment may lead to higher productive capacity, increasing GDP, wages and employment, higher tax revenues and lower deficits.

Here’s the chart showing that countries with private retirement systems are among the world leaders in pension assets.

The report highlights some of the specific nations and how they benefited.

Over the long term, transition costs may be at least partially offset by additional positive economic effects associated with introducing private pensions rather than relying solely on public provision. …poverty rates have declined in Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland since mandatory funded pensions were introduced. The initial transformation of Poland’s public PAYG system into a multi-pillar DC approach helped to encourage Warsaw’s development as a financial centre. …the introduction of funded DC pensions in Chile encouraged the growth of financial markets and provided a source of domestic financing.

For those seeking additional information on national reforms, I’ve written about the following jurisdictions.

At some point, I also need to write about the Singaporean system, which is one of the reasons that nation is so successful.

P.S. Needless to say, it would be nice if the United States was added to this list at some point. Though I won’t be holding my breath for any progress while Trump is in the White House.

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I wrote last month about a new book from the Fraser Institute about demographics and entrepreneurship.

My contribution was a chapter about the impact of taxation, especially the capital gains tax.

At a panel in Washington, I had a chance to discuss my findings.

If you don’t want to watch an 11-minute video, my presentation can be boiled down to four main points.

1. Demographics is destiny – Other authors actually had the responsibility of explaining in the book about the importance of demographic change. But it never hurts to remind people that this is a profound and baked-in-the-cake ticking time bomb.

So I shared this chart with the audience and emphasized that a modest-sized welfare state may have been feasible in the past, but will be far more burdensome in the future for the simple reason that the ratio of taxpayers to tax-consumers is dramatically changing.

And it goes without saying that big-sized welfare states are doomed to collapse. Think Greece and extend it to Italy, France, Japan, and other developed nations (including, I fear, the United States).

2. Entrepreneurship drives growth – Capital and labor are the two factors of production, but entrepreneurs are akin to the chefs who figure out news ways of mixing those ingredients.

For all intents and purposes, entrepreneurs produce the creative destruction that is a prerequisite for growth.

3. The tax code discourages entrepreneurship – The bulk of my presentation was dedicated to explaining that double taxation is both pervasive and harmful.

I shared my flowchart showing how the American tax code is biased against income that is saved and invest, which discourages entrepreneurial activity.

And then showed the capital gains tax burden in developed countries.

The U.S. is probably even worse than shown in the above chart since our capital gains tax is imposed on inflationary gains.

4. The United States need to be more competitive – Last but not least, I pointed out that America’s class-warfare tax policies are the fiscal equivalent of an “own goal” (soccer reference for World Cup fans).

And this chart from my chapter shows how the United States, as of mid-2016, had the highest combined tax rate on capital gains when including the effect of the capital gains tax.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Trump tax cuts did produce a lower corporate rate. So in the version below, I’ve added my back-of-the-envelope calculation of where the U.S. now ranks.

But the bottom line is still uncompetitive when looking at the tax burden on investment.

And never forget that this ultimately backfires against workers since it translates into lower pay.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal produced an excellent description of why capital gains taxation is very destructive.

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