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Posts Tagged ‘International Monetary Fund’

It’s not easy to identify the worst international bureaucracy.

Some days, I’m tempted to pick the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. After all, the Paris-based bureaucracy is infamous for pushing bigger government and higher taxes.

Other days, I want to select the International Monetary Fund, which leverages its bailout authority to relentlessly coerce governments into imposing higher taxes to finance bigger budgets.

At least for today, I’m going to argue that the IMF wins the dubious prize of being the worst.

That’s because the bureaucracy is doubling down on its ideological zeal for bigger government. Here are some excerpts from a speech earlier this week by the organization’s top bureaucrat, Christine Lagarde (who, incidentally, receives a lavish tax-free salary).

Our issue today is international corporate taxation. …I believe we need new rules in this area. …reasons why a new approach is urgent. …the three-decade long decline in corporate tax rates, undermines faith in the fairness of the overall tax system. …New IMF research published two weeks ago analyzes various options in…better addressing profit-shifting and tax competition.

Ms. Lagarde wants to boost the tax burden on business, and she complained about the fact that corporate tax rates have come down in recent decades.

What she cleverly didn’t acknowledge, though, is that the IMF’s own research shows that lower rates have not resulted in less revenue.

But you have to give Lagarde and her minions credit. They act on their beliefs.

The IMF has been pushing for big tax increases in Bahrain.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has called on the Bahrain government to take further action to shore up its shaky financial position, saying a large package of revenue and expenditure measures – including new taxes – is “urgently needed”. …the IMF set out a number of policy ideas – including the controversial tax proposal – in a statement… Bikas Joshi, the official who led the IMF team that visited Bahrain…went on to say that a “large fiscal adjustment is a priority” for the country…he said. “The implementation of a value-added tax, as planned, would be important. Additional revenue measures—including consideration of a corporate income tax—would be welcome.”

The IMF has been warning against tax cuts and instead pushing for tax increases in Ireland.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has urged the Government not to cut taxes in the upcoming budget, warning it risked “over-stimulating” Ireland’s fast-growing economy. …The fund recommended boosting housing supply through State-backed social housing projects… It recommended the Government pursues a small budget surplus in 2019… To achieve this, it advised broadening the tax base. One way this could be done was by increasing the tax on diesel… In addition, the IMF recommended getting rid of various tax exemptions and preferential rates such as the lower 9 per cent VAT rate for the hospitality sector.

The IMF has urged so many taxes that it created a backlash in Jordan.

Thousands of Jordanians heeded a strike call…to protest at major, IMF-guided tax rises they say will worsen an erosion in living standards. …warning the government that sweeping tax amendments…would impoverish employees already hit by unprecedented tax hikes implemented earlier this year. …tens of thousands of public and private sector employees accused the government of caving in to International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands and squeezing a middle class… The amendments, which would double the income tax base, are a key condition of a three-year IMF economic program that aims to generate more state revenue… Jordan earlier…raised taxes on hundreds of food and consumer items.

The examples are part of a pattern. I’ve also written about the IMF pimping for higher taxes in big countries, in small countries, and even entire continents.

Needless to say, the IMF also agitates for tax increases in the United States.

And it’s even specifically targeted poor nations for tax increases! Maybe now you’ll understand why I joked about nations not allowing IMF bureaucrats to visit.

I want to close today’s column by returning to Lagarde’s speech because there was another part of her speech that belies belief. She actually wants people to think that higher taxes and bigger government are a recipe for more growth.

…the current situation is especially harmful to low-income countries, depriving them of much-needed revenue to help them achieve higher economic growth.

Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. The IMF’s top bureaucrat made the absurdly anti-empirical argument that higher taxes are good for growth.

Even though that’s directly contrary to evidence on the factors that enabled North America and Western Europe to become rich.

Sadly, this is now a common rhetorical tactic by international bureaucracies. The OECD does the same thing, as does the United Nations.

I guess they all think if they repeat nonsense often enough, people will somehow conclude up is down and black is white.

For what it’s worth, I’ll wait for them to name a single country that ever became rich by imposing higher taxes and bigger government.

P.S. There are some good economists working in the research division of the IMF, and they periodically publish good research on topics such as spending caps, debt, decentralization, the size of government, demographics, government spending, and taxation. Too bad the bureaucrats working on policy never read those studies.

P.P.S. My favorite IMF study was the one that accidentally provided very compelling evidence against the value-added tax.

P.P.P.S. My least favorite IMF studies were the ones that actually suggested that it would be desirable if everyone had lower living standards so long as rich people disproportionately suffered. Disgusting.

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In a video I shared two months ago included a wide range of academic studies showing that government-imposed trade barriers undermine economic prosperity.

Not that those results were a surprise. Theory teaches us that government intervention is a recipe for economic harm. And we certainly have painful history showing the adverse consequences of protectionism.

When I debate the issue, I like to cite real-world examples, such as the fact that the nations with the lowest trade barriers tend to be very prosperous while protectionist nations are economic laggards.

No wonder there’s such a strong consensus among economists.

Today, we’re going to add to pro-trade consensus.

A new study from the International Monetary Fund investigates the macroeconomic impact of trade taxes. Here’s the basic outline of the methodology.

Some economies have recently begun to use commercial policy, seemingly for macroeconomic objectives. So it seems an appropriate time to study what, if any, the macroeconomic consequences of tariffs have actually been in practice. Most of the predisposition of the economics profession against protectionism is based on evidence that is either a) theoretical, b) micro, or c) aggregate and dated. Accordingly, in this paper, we study empirically the macroeconomic effects of tariffs using recent aggregate data. …Our panel of annual data is long if unbalanced, covering 1963 through 2014; more recent data is of greater relevance, but older data contains more protectionism. Since little protectionism remains in rich countries, we use a broad span of 151 countries, including 34 advanced and 117 developing countries.

And here are the results.

Our results suggest that tariff increases have adverse domestic macroeconomic and distributional consequences. We find empirically that tariff increases lead to declines of output and productivity in the medium term, as well as increases in unemployment and inequality. … a one standard deviation (or 3.6 percentage point) tariff increase leads to a decrease in output of about .4% five years later. We consider this effect to be plausibly sized and economically significant… Why does output fall after a tariff increase? …a key channel is the statistically and economically significant decrease in labor productivity, which cumulates to about .9% after five years. …Protectionism also leads to a small (statistically marginal) increase in unemployment…we find that tariff increases lead to more inequality, as measured by the Gini index; the effect becomes statistically significant two years after the tariff change. To summarize: the aversion of the economics profession to the deadweight losses caused by protectionism seems warranted; higher tariffs seem to have lower output and productivity, while raising unemployment and inequality. … there are asymmetric effects of protectionism; tariff increases hurt the economy more than liberalizations help.

These graphs show the main results.

The simple way to think about this data is that protectionism forces an economy to operate with sand in the gears. Another analogy is that protectionism is like having to deal with permanent and needless road detours. You can still get where you want to go, but at greater cost.

The bottom line is that things simply don’t function smoothly once government intervenes.

Lower growth, reduced productivity, and higher unemployment are obvious and inevitable consequences, as shown in the IMF study.

And while I don’t worry about inequality when some people get richer faster than other people get richer in a genuine free market, it’s morally disgusting for politicians to support protectionist policies that are especially harmful to the poor.

P.S. Everything in the IMF study about the damage of trade taxes also applies to the economic analysis of other forms of taxation. Indeed, deadweight losses presumably are even higher when considering income taxes. So the IMF deserves to be castigated for putting politics above economics when it pimps for higher taxes.

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Donald Trump and other populist leaders frequently are condemned for undermining the “rules-based system” that is the basis of the “postwar order.”

What exactly is meant by this criticism? In the case of Trump, is it disapproval of his protectionism?

Yes, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The broader accusation is that Trump and the others are insufficiently supportive of the so-called “international architecture” of treaties and organizations (the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, World Bank, G-7, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, NATO, etc) that western nations created after World War II.

And the critics are right, in my humble opinion.

But that’s besides the point. What’s really needed is a case-by-case analysis to determine whether the aforementioned treaties and organizations are making the world a better place.

To help understand this topic, let’s look at some excerpts from an anonymously authored article in  the latest issue of Cayman Financial Review.

What is the oft-cited “postwar order” that ostensibly is being threatened by populism? …begin with some history. There have been three major attempts to create an international architecture in hopes of discouraging war and encouraging peaceful commerce among world’s countries. The first occurred after the Napoleonic wars, the second occurred after World War I, and the third occurred after World War II.

The article explains that first postwar order was a big success, with 100 years of relative peace and prosperity between 1815 and 1914.

But the second postwar order, which followed World War I, was a miserable failure.

…the urgent economic problems that World War I had created – the need for demobilization, the restoration of the gold standard, the resumption of international trade flows, and the reconstruction of war-ravaged areas. Reparations burdened Germany and contributed to hyperinflation. …Germany depended on American loans to make its reparations payments to France and the United Kingdom. In turn, France and the United Kingdom depended on German reparations to repay their wartime loans from the United States. This financial merry-go-round was inherently unstable. …In the 1930s, many countries tried economic nationalism to escape from the Great Depression. Abandonment of the interwar gold standard, high tariffs to discourage imports, and competitive devaluations to boost exports became widespread. However, these “beggar-thy-neighbor” failed economically, caused the collapse of international trade, and contributed to rising international tensions.

And this grim experience was in the minds of policymakers as they sought to restore a system based on peace and open commerce.

…neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wanted to punish ordinary Germans, Italians or Japanese. Instead of the postwar harshness of Clemenceau, Churchill and Roosevelt favored the postwar magnanimity of Metternich, in which Germany, Italy, and Japan would be reconstructed as democratic capitalist countries. …both Churchill and Roosevelt thought that other new international organizations would be needed to help finance postwar reconstruction, provide stable exchange rates, and promote the progressive liberalization of international trade. …At the risk of oversimplifying, there are four major pieces of what is now loosely though of as the postwar order.

1. The United Nations and other multilateral bodies
2. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank
3. The World Trade Organization and affiliated trade pacts
4. NATO and other military/security alliances

The article is filled with details on how these various institutions evolved.

But for our purposes, let’s focus on ostensible threats to this order. Here’s what “Hamilton” wrote.

All four components of the current international architecture have critics, but they should be examined separately.

  1. The United Nations is routinely condemned for being ineffective, wasteful and anti-Western. However, the UN part of the post-war order is not under serious threat. However, the OECD is subject to considerable attacks because of its statist policy agenda.
  2. The IMF and World Bank are routinely condemned for being wasteful and anti-market. The IMF also is singled out for bailout policies that are said to encourage profligacy in developing nation and to reward sloppy lending practices by big western banks. Notwithstanding the instability than many say is caused by the IMF, this part of the postwar order is not under serious threat.
  3. The WTO and regional FTAs are under threat from a populist backlash in the United States and Europe, driven in large part by angst over financial prospects for lower-skilled workers. This part of the postwar order is under serious threat, especially because U.S. laws give the president significant unilateral powers over trade policy.
  4. NATO and other security arrangements are being questioned for both cost and changing geopolitical factors (e.g., the rise of China, Islamic terrorism). While unlikely at this point, dramatic policy changes from the United States could substantially alter the structure and/or operation of these military alliances.

How depressing. The part I like is the part that is under assault.

Here are the key points from the article’s conclusion.

The so-called postwar order is not a monolithic entity. …Some have been very successful. Consider, for instance, the sweeping reduction in trade barriers and the concomitant rise in cross-border commerce. …But other parts of the post-war order do not have very strong track records. Bureaucracies such as the IMF and OECD arguably deserve some hostile attention because of their support for anti-market policies. Policymakers who want to preserve the best parts of the post-war order may want to consider whether it is time to jettison or reform the harmful parts.

This is spot on.

Parts of the “postwar order” should be preserved. The World Trade Organization definitely belongs on that list. And presumably nobody wants to disrupt or eliminate the parts of the “international architecture” that facilitate things such as cross-border air travel, international shipping, and global telecommunications.

But the helpful work of those entities doesn’t change the fact that other entities engage in activities that are counterproductive. A “rules-based order” is only good, after all, if it advancing good rules.

Needless to say, the answer to all of these questions is no.

Which brings to mind the old saying about “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

As “Hamilton” wrote, the bad parts of the postwar order should be jettisoned to preserve the good parts.

For those interested in this topic, Adam Tooze of Columbia University has a very interesting article on the same topic.

Published in Foreign Policy, his article basically applies a “public choice” description of how the current postwar order evolved. And he says it initially was not very successful

For true liberals in both the United States and Europe, who hankered after the golden age of globalization in the late 19th century, the resulting Cold War economic order was a profound disappointment. The U.S. Treasury and the first generation of neoliberals in Europe fretted against the U.S. State Department and its interventionist economic tendencies. Mavericks such as the young Milton Friedman—true advocates of free markets in the way we take for granted today—demanded a bonfire of all regulations. …The reality of the liberal order that supposedly came into existence in the postwar moment was the more or less haphazard continuation of wartime controls. It would take until 1958 before the Bretton Woods vision was finally implemented. Even then it was not a “liberal” order by the standard of the gilded age of the 19th century or in the sense that Davos understands it today. International mobility of capital for anything other than long-term investment was strictly limited.

Tooze argues that genuine liberalism (i.e., open markets and trade) didn’t really take hold until the 1980s, with the market-based revolution of Thatcher and Reagan, the “Washington Consensus,” and the collapse of communism.

The stakeholders in the 1970s were obstreperous trade unions, and that kind of consultation was precisely the bad habit that the neoliberal revolutionaries set out to break. …the global victory of the liberal order required a more far-reaching struggle. …the market revolution of the 1980s…  the aftermath of the Cold War, the moment of Western triumph. …the defeat of inflation, this was the age of the Washington Consensus.

For those not familiar with this particular piece of jargon, the “Washington Consensus” refers to the 1980s-era acceptance of free markets as the ideal route for economic development.

And “neoliberal” refers to classical liberalism, not the modern dirigiste version of liberalism found in the United States.

I’ll close by recycling this visual, which attempts to distinguish between good globalism and bad globalism.

The image uses the example of trade and jurisdictional competition, so I don’t pretend is captures all the issues and controversies that we discussed today.

But it reinforces why it is wrong to blindly accept and support the anti-market components of the postwar order simply because there are other parts that deserve our support. The goal is more global prosperity, not less.

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I’m not a big fan of the International Monetary Fund and I regularly criticize the international bureaucracy for its relentless advocacy in favor of higher taxes.

But that’s not what worries me most about the IMF.

To be sure, higher fiscal burdens undermine economic vitality, and I regularly warn that such policies will reduce an economy’s potential long-run growth rate.

That being said, tax increases generally don’t threaten macroeconomic stability.

If we’re looking at policies that can trigger short-run crises, I’m more concerned about the IMF’s bailout policies. For all intents and purposes, the IMF subsidizes “moral hazard” by reducing the perceived cost (to financial institutions) of lending money to dodgy governments and reducing the perceived costs (to governments) of incurring more debt.

Why not take more risk, after all, if you think the IMF will step in to socialize any losses? In other words, when the IMF engages in a few bailouts today, it increases the likelihood of more bailouts in the future.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that the bureaucrats want a bigger figurative checkbook to enable even bigger future bailouts.

The good news is that the U.S. government can say no.

But will it? The U.K.-based Financial Times reported a few days ago that the United States might support an expansion of the IMF’s bailout capacity.

The Trump administration has left the door open for a US funding boost to the IMF, calling for a “careful evaluation” of the global lender’s finances to make sure it has enough money to rescue struggling economies. …The IMF — led by Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister — is hoping to get its members to increase the fund’s permanent reserves… This year, the Trump administration has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the IMF’s $57bn loan package to Argentina— its largest in history.

The next day, the FT augmented its coverage.

The IMF is set to embark on a major fundraising drive…the success of Ms Lagarde’s campaign is highly uncertain, with potentially profound consequences not only for the fund but for the global economy. …supporters of the fund say there are many possible scenarios in which it would be essential. If a recession and financial crisis were to hit in the coming years,central bankers may well struggle to find monetary remedies… a US Treasury spokesman left the door open to new possible contributions from America to the IMF. …Optimists point to a surprise decision by the Trump administration in April to support a $13bn boost to World Bank resources… there is still scepticism of the IMF among his top lieutenants at the Treasury department, including David Malpass, the undersecretary for international affairs. …Even if they were on board, economic and national security hawks at the White House who disdain multilateralism as a loss of sovereignty could be an additional obstacle, not to mention Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The previous IMF quota increase, pushed by the Obama administration — which raised America’s permanent commitment to the fund to about $115bn — finally scraped through Congress in 2016, after a half-decade delay.

I was very saddened a couple of years ago when the GOP Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s bailout authority, especially since a similar effort was blocked in 2014 when Democrats still controlled the Senate.

The issue today is whether the Trump Administration will repeat that mistake.

Back in 2012, I stated that the IMF issue was a “minimum test” for Republicans. Well, the issues haven’t changed. Everything I wrote then still applies today.

I hope Trump does the right thing and rejects expanded bailout authority for the IMF for the sensible reason that it’s foolish to subsidize more borrowing by badly governed nations.

But I’m not picky. I’ll also be happy if Trump says no simply because he’s miffed that the IMF attacked him (accurately but unfairly) during the 2016 campaign and dissed his tax plan earlier this year.

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I’m happy to discuss theory when debating economic policy, but I mostly focus on real-world evidence.

That’s because my friends on the left always have a hard time answering my two-question challenge, which simply asks them to name one success story for big government.

They usually point to Sweden and Denmark, but get discouraged when I point out that those nations became rich when government was relatively small.

And I’m embarrassed to admit that some of my fellow economists once thought that communist nations grew faster than capitalist nations.

But let’s not digress. I raise this topic because there are many critics of capitalism who admit that free markets generate more wealth, but they assert that society would be better off if incomes were lower so long as rich people suffered more than poor people.

This strikes me as morally poisonous. But it also gives me an opportunity to cite a new study from the International Monetary Fund that allows us to further analyze this issue.

The IMF report starts by noting that globalization (free trade, liberalization, etc) has been good for global prosperity.

Over the course of the last decades the world economy has witnessed rapid integration. Most countries have opened up their economies and experienced an unprecedented rise in the flow of goods and capital across borders. This phenomenon – now widely known as economic globalization – was coincident with rising living standards in a large number of countries. Many developing countries have experienced episodes of strong economic growth and substantial poverty reduction as they integrated their economies with the rest of the world.

Sounds like good news, right?

It is good news, but those who fixate on inequality are worried.

…while globalization might on average be good for growth, more might not always be better for all. …When we shift the analysis to how income gains from globalization are distributed within countries, we also find globalization to have different effects on different incomes…gains are, however, distributed unequally both across and within countries. …Within countries, income inequality increases as a consequence of globalization. The income gains resulting from globalization tend to go primarily to the top of the national income distributions.

In other words, rich people are getting richer at a faster pace.

This phenomenon is captured in these two charts, which show that globalization is associated with more growth and more inequality.

But what’s important is that poor people also are getting richer.

In the subsample of developing countries where the gains from globalization are generally larger, however, they also reach the bottom of the income distribution and reduce poverty. … We find…some evidence of a poverty reducing effect of globalization in developing countries.

Consider, for example, the remarkable data I shared about China. Income inequality increased at the same time that poverty dramatically declined.

And those results seem to hold for the rest of the world, especially in developing nations.

So now let’s look at the most important chart from the IMF study, which shows that all income groups enjoy more prosperity with globalization.

Yes, rich people benefit the most, so official inequality numbers will increase.

But put yourself in the shoes of a poor person. Would you be willing to forego your additional income in order to deny additional income for a rich person? I suspect the vast majority of poor people would think that’s a crazy question.

But, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, there are plenty of folks on the left who think that’s a perfectly reasonable position. Including, incidentally, some of the people at the IMF.

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The good news about China is that economic liberalization has produced impressive growth in recent decades, which has helped bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The bad news is that China started from such a low position that per-capita income is still quite low compared to rich nations.

So what does the economic future hold? Will China continue its upward trajectory?

That’s certainly possible, but it depends on the Chinese government. Will there be additional liberalization, giving the economy more “breathing room” to grow?

Not if the government listens to the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund. I wrote three years ago about an IMF study that recommended huge tax increases in China.

And now there’s another IMF report pushing for big tax hikes. Only instead of arguing that higher taxes somehow will produce more growth by financing a bigger burden of government (which – no joke – was the core argument in the 2105 study), this new report claims higher taxes will produce more growth by reducing inequality.

Here’s the basic premise of the paper.

…economic growth has not benefited all segments of the population equally or at the same pace, causing income disparities to grow, resulting in a large increase in income inequality… This is especially of concern as the recent literature has found that elevated levels of inequality are harmful for the pace and sustainability of growth… The paper discusses what additional policies can be deployed to improve equity in opportunities and outcomes, with particular focus on the role for fiscal policy.

But a key part of the premise – the blanket assertion that inequality undermines growth – is junk.

As I noted in 2015 when debunking a different IMF study, “..they never differentiate between bad Greek-style inequality that is caused by cronyism and good Hong Kong-style inequality that is caused by some people getting richer faster than other people getting richer in a free market.”

Let’s dig into the details of this new IMF study.

Here’s the problem, at least according to the bureaucrats.

Income inequality in China today, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is among the highest in the world. …Furthermore, the Gini coefficient has rapidly increased over the last two decades, by a total of about 15 Gini points since 1990.

And here’s the chart that supposedly should cause angst. It shows that inequality began to rise as China shifted toward capitalism.

But why is this inequality a bad thing, assuming rich people earned their money honestly?

When markets are allowed to function, people become rich by providing value to the rest of us. In other words, it’s not a zero-sum game.

Ironically, the IMF study actually makes my point.

…much of China’s population has experienced rising real incomes. …even for the bottom 10 percent incomes rose by as much as 63 percent between 1980 and 2015… This has implied that China reduced the share of people living in poverty immensely. Measured by the headcount ratio, the population in poverty decreased by 86 percentage points from 1980 to 2013 (see figure 6), the most rapid reduction in history.

And here’s the aforementioned Figure 6, which is the data worth celebrating.

Any normal person will look at this chart and conclude that China should do more liberalization.

But not the bureaucrats at the IMF. With their zero-sum mentality, they fixate on the inequality chart.

Which leads them to make horrifyingly bad recommendations.

…several reforms could be envisaged to make fiscal policy more inclusive, both on the tax and expenditure side. …revenues from PIT contribute only around 5 percent of total revenues, a much lower share than the OECD average of 25 percent. Increasing the reliance on PIT, which more easily accommodates a progressive structure, could allow China to improve redistribution through the tax system. …While the PIT in China already embeds a progressive schedule with marginal rates increasing with income from 3 to 45 percent, …redesigning the tax brackets would ensure that middle and high income households with higher ability to pay contribute more to financing the national budget… Property and wealth taxes remain limited in China. Such taxes are broadly viewed as progressive, because high-income households usually tend also to have more property and wealth. …Consideration should therefore be given to adopt a recurrent market-value based property tax.

And why do IMF bureaucrats want all these additional growth-stifling taxes?

To finance a larger burden of government spending.

China still lags other emerging economies and OECD countries in public spending on education, health and social assistance. …social expenditure will need to be boosted.

In other words, the IMF is suggesting that China should copy welfare states such as Italy and France.

Except those nations at least enjoyed a lengthy period before World War II when government was very small. That’s when they became relatively rich.

The IMF wants China to adopt big government today, which is a recipe to short-circuit prosperity.

P.S. I don’t think the IMF is motivated by animus towards China. The bureaucrats are equal-opportunity dispensers of bad advice.

P.P.S. The OECD also is trying to undermine growth in China.

P.P.P.S. There are some senior-level Chinese officials who understand the downsides of a welfare state.

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A couple of months ago, I thought I did something meaningful by sharing six separate examples of the International Monetary Fund pressuring sub-Saharan African nations to impose higher tax burdens. This was evidence, I suggested, that the IMF had a disturbing agenda of bigger government for the entire region.

I didn’t imply the bureaucrats were motivated by racism. After all, the IMF has pushed for higher taxes in the United States, in China, in Latin America, in the Middle East, and in Europe. (folks who work at the IMF don’t pay taxes on their own salaries, but they clearly believe in equal opportunity when urging higher taxes for everyone else).

Nonetheless, I thought it was scandalous that the IMF was systematically agitating for taxes in a region that desperately needs more investment and entrepreneurship. And my six examples were proof of a continent-wide agenda!

But it turns out that I wasn’t exposing some sort of sinister secret. The IMF just published a new report where the bureaucrats openly argue that there should be big tax hikes in all sub-Saharan nations.

Domestic revenue mobilization is one of the most pressing policy challenges facing sub-Saharan African countries. …the region as a whole could mobilize about 3 to 5 percent of GDP, on average, in additional revenues. …domestic revenue mobilization should be a key component of any fiscal consolidation strategy. Absent adequate efforts to raise domestic revenues, fiscal consolidation tends to rely excessively on reductions in public spending.

Notice, by the way, the term “domestic revenue mobilization.” Such a charming euphemism for higher taxes.

And it’s also worth pointing out that the IMF openly urges more revenue so that governments don’t have to impose spending restraint.

Moreover, the IMF is happy that there have been “substantial gains in revenue mobilization” over the past two decades.

Over the past three decades, many sub-Saharan African countries have achieved substantial gains in revenue mobilization. For the median sub-Saharan African economy, total revenue excluding grants increased from around 14 percent of GDP in the mid-1990s, to more than 18 percent in 2016, while tax revenue increased from 11 to 15 percent. …Two-thirds of sub-Saharan African countries now have revenue ratios above 15 percent, compared with fewer than half in 1995. …the region still has the lowest revenue-to-GDP ratio compared to other regions in the world. The good news is that there are signs of convergence. Over the past three decades, the increase in sub-Saharan Africa’s revenue ratio has been double that for all emerging market and developing economies.

To the bureaucrats at the IMF, the “convergence” toward higher taxes is “good news.”

However, there is some data in the report that is genuine good news.

In most regions of the world, there has been a trend in recent years toward reducing rates for the CIT and the personal income tax (PIT). In sub-Saharan African countries, the average top PIT rate has been reduced from about 44 to 32 percent since 2000, while average top CIT rates have been reduced by more than 5 percentage points during the same period.

Here are two charts showing the decline in tax rates, not only in Africa, but in most other regions.

By the way, the IMF bureaucrats appear to be surprised that revenues went up as tax rates went down. I guess they’ve never heard of the Laffer Curve.

Despite this decline in rates, total direct taxes (PIT and CIT) as a percentage of GDP have been trending upward.

But the IMF obviously didn’t learn from this evidence (or from the evidence it shared last year).

Rather than proposing lower tax rates, the report urges a plethora of tax hikes.

Successful experiences in revenue mobilization have relied on efforts to implement broad-based VATs, gradually expand the base for direct taxes (CIT and PIT), and implement a system to tax small businesses and levy excises on a few key items.

Wow. I don’t know what’s worse, claiming that tax increases are good for growth, or pushing higher taxes in the world’s poorest region.

Let’s close by debunking the IMF’s absurd contention that bigger government would be good for Africa.

I suppose the simplest response would be to share my video series about the economics of government spending, especially since I cite a wealth of academic research.

But let’s take an even simpler approach. The IMF report complained that governments in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have enough money to spend.

The good news, as illustrated by this chart (based on data from the bureaucracy’s World Economic Outlook database), is that the IMF is accurate about relative fiscal burdens.

The bad news is that the IMF wants us to believe that a low fiscal burden is a bad thing. The bureaucrats at the IMF (and at other international bureaucracies) actually want people to believe that bigger government means more prosperity. Which is why the report urges big tax hikes.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that the IMF doesn’t provide any evidence for this bizarre assertion.

Though I’ve had folks on the left sometimes tell me that bigger government must be good for growth because rich nations in the western world have bigger governments while poor nations in Africa have comparatively small governments.

If you want to get in the weeds of public finance theory, the IMF bureaucrats are misinterpreting Wagner’s Law.

But there’s no need to delve into theory. When people make this assertion to me, I challenge them to identify a poor nation that ever became a rich nation with big government.

It’s true, of course, that there are rich nations that have big governments, but all of those countries became rich in the 1800s when government was very small and welfare state programs were basically nonexistent.

So let’s take the previous chart, which supposedly showed too little spending in sub-Saharan Africa, and add another column (in red) showing the level of government spending in North America and Western Europe in the 1800s.

The obvious takeaway is that African nations should cut taxes and reducing spending. The exact opposite of what the IMF recommends.

In other words, the IMF’s agenda of bigger government and higher taxes is a recipe for continued poverty.

But keep in mind that fiscal policy is just one piece of the puzzle. As explained in Economic Freedom of the World, a nation’s prosperity also is affected by regulatory policy, trade policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance.

And nations in sub-Saharan Africa generally score even lower in those areas than they do for fiscal policy. So while those countries should reduce their fiscal burdens, it’s probably even more important for them to address other policy mistakes.

To end on an upbeat note, here’s a video from Reason about how free markets can help bring prosperity to Africa.

I also recommend this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity since it does a great job of debunking the argument that higher taxes and bigger government are a recipe for prosperity.

And this video about Botswana is a good case study of how African nations can enjoy more prosperity with market-oriented policy.

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