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Posts Tagged ‘Singapore’

Singapore is routinely ranked as the world’s 2nd-freest economy, trailing only Hong Kong.

The nation’s laissez-faire approach has yielded big dividends. Singapore is now über prosperous, richer than both the United States and United Kingdom.

But there are problems in paradise.

Advocates of class-warfare policy (see here and here) are urging higher tax burdens. And even though there’s no reason to raise taxes (Singapore has a huge budget surplus), politicians have catered to this noisy clique in recent years (see here and here).

In a column for the Straits Times that I co-wrote with Donovan Choy of Singapore’s Adam Smith Centre, we explain why the government should slam the door on all tax hikes, especially proposals targeting entrepreneurs and investors.

Singapore has shown that conventional theories about economic growth need to be updated to reflect that growth doesn’t necessarily need to weaken once a nation becomes prosperous. Singaporeans should be thankful for the sensible governance that has made the nation a role model. Unfortunately, some people are willing to threaten the country’s prosperity by urging higher tax burdens on the wealthy. They risk national competitiveness by advocating additional layers of tax on income that is saved and invested. This “class warfare” approach is deeply misguided, especially in a globalised economy.

We list six specific guidelines for sensible policy.

Two of them are worth highlighting, starting with the fact that Singapore so far has avoided the trap of “Wagner’s Law.”

What makes Singapore special is that it avoided the mistakes other nations made when they became rich. Countries in North America and Western Europe created costly welfare states once they became relatively prosperous. This is known to academics as Wagner’s Law, and it has serious consequences since larger public sectors reduce competitiveness and lead to less growth.

We also explain that discriminatory taxes on saving and investment are the most destructive method of collecting revenue.

Proponents assert that dividend and capital gains taxes are needed so that upper-income people pay tax. But this line of thinking is misguided. Such income is already subject to 17 per cent corporate income taxation in Singapore. Imposing dividend and capital gains taxes would mean such income is subject to increasing layers of discriminatory taxation. The result is to discourage capital formation (savings and investment) – the very essence of entrepreneurship. And that approach is economically foolish, since all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that saving and investment are key to long-run growth and rising living standards.

Since today’s topic is Singapore, let’s look at some additional material.

We’ll start with two articles that Donovan wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education.

The first column explains a bit of the history.

The country’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is often recognized as the father of Singapore. If that is so, then the grandfathers of Singapore would rightfully be three men: Sir Stamford Raffles, who founded the trade settlement, William Farquhar, whom Raffles put at the helm of Singapore in his periodic years of absences, and John Crawfurd, whom Raffles appointed to succeed Farquhar. …Raffles’s intentions were plain as he wrote in a letter in June 1819: “Our object is not territory but trade; a great commercial emporium…,” and to develop “the utmost possible freedom of trade and equal rights to all, with protection of property and person”. …Like Farquhar, Crawfurd shared Raffles’s strong free-market beliefs and pushed his laissez-faire policies even harder… The common denominator of the grandfathers of Singapore was their economic philosophies – capitalism and free enterprise were at the root of their beliefs. The first leaders of colonial Singapore were staunch classical liberals who professed strong beliefs in economic freedoms

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is somewhat similar to Hong Kong’s economic history.

Donovan’s next column looks at how Singapore has wisely limited redistribution.

The Singapore welfare system is considered one of the most successful by first-world standards. World Bank data shows that Singapore’s government health expenditure in 2015 is only 4.3 percent of GDP, a small fraction in comparison to other first-world countries…while achieving comparatively equal or better health outcomes… While most of Europe, Scandinavia, and North America spend 30-40 percent of GDP on social welfare programs, Singapore spends less than half as much… qualifying for welfare is notoriously difficult by the standards of most of the developed Western world. The Singapore government’s position on welfare handouts is undergirded by a staunch economic philosophy of self-reliance and self-responsibility where the first lines of welfare should be derived from one’s individual savings, the family unit, and local communities before turning to the government. …This philosophy of self-reliance and responsibility is prominent not only in social welfare but is also replicated in the Singapore government’s approach to retirement savings, health care, education, and housing. For instance, the state’s preferred policy of ensuring individuals have sufficient resources for a rainy day is via the Central Provident Fund, a government-mandated savings account.

Again, much like Hong Kong.

Singapore also has what is probably the most market-oriented healthcare system in the world.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

…it achieves some outcomes Americans would find remarkable. Life expectancy at birth is two to three years longer than in Britain or the United States. Its infant mortality rate is among the lowest in the world, about half that of the United States…about two-thirds of health care spending is private, and about one-third is public. It’s just about the opposite in the United States. …What also sets Singapore apart, and what makes it beloved among many conservative policy analysts, is its reliance on health savings accounts. All workers are mandated to put a decent percentage of their earnings into savings for the future. …why is Singapore so cheap? Some think that it’s the strong use of health savings accounts and cost-sharing. People who have to use their own money usually spend less.

The country is also remarkably free of crime, as noted by CNBC.

Singapore was recently ranked second on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Safe Cities Index for 2017, coming in just behind Tokyo. In 2016, the island nation’s police reported 135 total days without any crimes including snatch-theft, house break-ins and robbery. That low crime rate means many small businesses enjoy little concern about shoplifting. …local businesses take few precautions when closing shop at night. For instance, in the ground floor lobby of a mixed-use building in the downtown business district, many shops don’t have windows, locks — or even doors.

Though it is not a total libertarian paradise.

A column in Bloomberg warns the Brexit crowd that there are statist components to Singapore’s regime.

Over 80 percent of the population lives in public housing… In industrial policy, the government oversees a plethora of schemes targeting mostly off-budget public funding to particular sectors such as biopharma and aerospace, as well as activities such as R&D and skills training. Government-linked companies, whose controlling shareholder is the sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd., are the dominant players in transport, communications, real estate and media.

Let’s close with a column Professor Steve Hanke authored for Forbes.

Singapore validates Adam Smith’s counsel on economic development: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” …Singapore, Hong Kong, and even the Cayman Islands exemplify commerce-oriented city-states. How can such a small player, like Singapore, achieve prominence on the world’s stage? …acting as a commercial republic and embracing a regime of entrepreneurial public finance. …the culture of an entrepreneurial inclined city-state – like Singapore – differs significantly from that of a parasitical state that feeds on tax extractions.

Here’s his comparison of a predatory government compared to a pro-market government.

Singapore is a successful example of the right column.

Sounds like a model the United States should follow.

Assuming, of course, Singapore retains good policy.

P.S. I’ve also had to explain why the Cayman Islands should retain good policy.

P.P.S. Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD tries very hard to overlook the success of Singapore’s low-tax model.

P.P.P.S. Singapore is in first place in my “laissez-faire index.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it takes extraordinarily good performance to catch up.

But it can happen.

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

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

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Imagine being a poor person and getting to choose your country. Which one would you select?

The answer probably depends on your goals in life. If you want to emulate “Lazy Robert” and be a moocher, you could pick Denmark. You’ll surely get more than enough money to survive.

Denmark’s also not a bad choice if you have a bit of ambition. It ranks #16 in the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, largely because it has a very laissez-faire approach on trade, regulation, and other non-fiscal policies. So there’s a decent chance you could climb the economic ladder.

But if you have lots of ambition and definitely want a better life for your children and grandchildren, you’d presumably pick a nation such as Singapore, which routinely gets very high grades from Economic Freedom of the World.

There’s a lot of economic liberty, which has resulted in huge improvements in living standards. Indeed, people in Singapore are now much richer than Americans.

The last thing you would do, however, is pick a stagnant country such as Greece. Or a miserably impoverished nation such as Zimbabwe.

Unless you’re one of the buffoons at Oxfam. That “charity” just produced an inequality study that says Singapore is one of the world’s worst nations, ranking far below places where people are very poor with very bleak lives.

Here’s how Oxfam describes its report.

In 2015, the leaders of 193 governments promised to reduce inequality under Goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without reducing inequality, meeting SDG 1 to eliminate poverty will be impossible. In 2017, …Oxfam produced the first index to measure the commitment of governments to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. The index is based on a new database of indicators, now covering 157 countries, which measures government action… The report recommends that all countries should develop national inequality action plans to achieve SDG 10 on reducing inequality. These plans should include delivery of universal, public and free health and education and universal social protection floors. They should be funded by increasing progressive taxation and clamping down on exemptions and tax dodging.

In other words, the study is a measure of whether nations have punitive welfare states, not whether poor people have better lives.

The assertion in the second sentence that poverty can’t be reduced without reducing inequality is especially absurd. Unless, of course, you choose a dishonest definition of poverty (which is what we get from leftist groups like the UN and OECD, not to mention the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, and the Obama Administration).

But let’s focus on Singapore. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters story on the controversy over that nation’s poor score.

Oxfam on Wednesday rejected Singapore’s defense of its low taxes after the NGO ranked the wealthy city state among the 10 worst-offending countries in fuelling inequality with its low-tax regime. Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) index ranked Singapore 149th of 157, below Afghanistan, Algeria, and Cambodia, and marginally higher than Haiti, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. …Oxfam’s head of inequality policy, Max Lawson, said the impact of Singapore’s tax policy went beyond its borders, serving as a tax haven for the rich and big corporations. …Singapore Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said on Tuesday…“Yes, the income tax burden on Singaporeans is low. And almost half the population do not pay any income tax,”…“Yet, they benefit more than proportionately from the high quality of infrastructure and social support that the state provides,” he said. “In Oxfam’s view, Singapore’s biggest failing is our tax rates, which are not punitive enough.” Lee also said 90 percent of Singaporeans owned their homes and home ownership was 84 percent even among the poorest 10 percent of households. “No other country comes close,” he said.

Minister Lee is correct, of course.

Singapore is a great place to be poor, in part because the bottom 10 percent in Singapore would be middle class or above in many of the nation’s that get better scores from Oxfam’s ideologues. But mostly because it’s a place where it’s possible to become rich rather than remain poor.

There are some other aspects of the Oxfam study that merit attention, including the curious omission of some of the world’s most left-wing nations, such as Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.

In the case of North Korea, I’m willing to believe that there simply wasn’t enough reliable data. But why aren’t there scores for Cuba and Venezuela? I strongly suspect that authors deliberately omitted those two hellholes because they didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of incredibly poor nations getting very high scores (which is what made Jeffrey Sachs’ SDG Index an easy target for mockery)

Also, I’d be curious to learn why Hong Kong isn’t ranked? Taxes are even lower and there’s even less redistribution in Hong Kong, so maybe it would have been last rather than merely in the bottom 10.

Was Oxfam worried about looking foolish, so they left prosperous Hong Kong out of the study?

That’s my guess. The last thing the left wants is for people to understand that poor nations only become rich nations with free markets and small government.

The bottom line is that Oxfam is an organization that has been hijacked by hard-left activists. Given it’s track record of shoddy reports, it’s now a joke rather than a charity.

P.S. The OECD also produced a shoddy study that grossly mischaracterized Singapore and totally ignored Hong Kong.

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When President Trump proposed zero trade barriers among major economies, I applauded. Government-imposed barriers to commerce hurt prosperity, whether those restrictions hinder voluntary exchange inside a country or across national borders.

There’s a debate over Trump’s sincerity, and I’m definitely with the skeptics (look at his supposed deal with Mexico, for instance), but let’s set that issue aside and investigate the merits of free trade.

But let’s go one step farther. Instead of looking at whether multiple nations should simultaneously eliminate trade barriers, let’s consider the case for unilateral free trade.

In other words, should the government abolish all tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions so that buying products from Rome, Italy, is as simple as buying products from Rome, Georgia.

The global evidence says yes, regardless of whether other countries do the same thing.

Consider the examples of Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong. According to the World Trade Organization, trade barriers are virtually nonexistent in these jurisdictions.

Have they suffered?

Hardly. According to the World Bank, all three jurisdictions are among the most prosperous places on the planet. Indeed, if you removed oil sheikdoms and tax havens from the list, they would win the gold, silver, and bronze medals for prosperity.

To be sure, there are many reasons that Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong are rich. They have low taxes and small government, as well as comparatively little red tape and intervention.

But free trade definitely helps to explain why these jurisdictions have become so rich at such a rapid pace.

Let’s also look at the example of New Zealand. It doesn’t have absolute free trade, but average tariffs are 2.02 percent, which means it is the world’s fifth-most pro-trade nation.

Have the Kiwis suffered from free trade?

Nope. I shared a remarkable video last year that explains the nation’s remarkable turnaround coincided with a period of unilateral trade liberalization.

Today, let’s look at a column on the same topic by Patrick Tyrrell.

New Zealand…is one of the champions of economic freedom around the world. But it wasn’t always so. In the mid-1980s, New Zealand was facing an economic crisis, with its domestic market and international trade both heavily regulated. Unemployment had reached 11 percent… In response, the government of New Zealand began implementing revolutionary economic reforms, most significantly related to trade policy. It announced in 1987 a program that would reduce the tax on imports to under 20 percent by the year 1992. By 1996, that tax was reduced further to under 10 percent, and by the end of 1999, about 95 percent of New Zealand’s tariffs were set at zero.

Was that a successful policy?

Extremely beneficial.

New Zealand’s adoption of less restrictive trade policies has corresponded to its climb up the trade-freedom scale…and with a huge boost in per capita gross domestic product. The United States could take a page out of New Zealand’s trade-policy book and implement the same type of reductions in tariffs… That would enhance innovation and economic freedom—and grow our economy.

Here’s the chart from Patrick’s column.

Once again, the obvious caveat applies. New Zealand has adopted many pro-market policies in recent decades, so trade is just one of the reasons the country has moved in the right direction.

Now let’s go back in history and peruse Professor Peter Cain’s analysis of what happened when the U.K. adopted unilateral free trade in the mid-nineteenth century.

The trend to freer trade began in the late eighteenth century. …it was the 1840s that saw the beginning of a true revolution in policy. Earlier moves towards freer trade had been conditioned by an insistence on reciprocity (i.e. agreements with other states on mutual tariff reductions), but from the 1840s policy was determined unilaterally. The most dramatic instance of this was the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. …It also reflected a growing belief that cheap imports were the key to prosperity because they would benefit the consumer as well as reduce business costs… Free trade certainly became a hugely popular cause in Britain… It was attractive not only because it guaranteed cheap food, but also because it supported the belief, widespread amongst both the business class and their workforce, that the state should be kept out of economic life.

What was the impact of this shift to unilateral free trade?

…free trade, in combination with heavy foreign investment, certainly helped to change the shape of the British economy in the late nineteenth century. …the long run effect of unilateral free trade had been to increase competition for British agriculture and industry, lower profits and stimulate capital exports. …this regime had yielded great benefits. British capital, pouring into foreign railways and other industries overseas, had helped to reduce agricultural commodity prices, shifting the terms of trade in Britain’s favour and raising national income. Dividends and interest payments on foreign investments had also increased greatly and these returns were realised by importing cheap foreign produce freely. Furthermore, …this unilateral free trade-foreign investment system had provided a strong boost to Britain’s commercial and financial sector.

Here’s the Maddison data on per-capita GDP in the United Kingdom between 1800-1914.

Looking at this chart, I’m wondering how anyone can possibly argue that unilateral free trade hurts an economy.

Once again, many caveats apply. Most important, many other policies play a role in determining national prosperity. It’s also worth noting that a handful of tariffs on products like wine and tobacco were maintained. Most troubling, the era of unilateral free trade coincided with the imposition of the income tax (though it didn’t become a money machine for bigger government until the 1900s).

The bottom line is that every example of unilateral free trade (or sweeping unilateral reductions in trade barriers) tells a positive story. Trade liberalization isn’t everything, but it’s definitely a huge plus for growth.

Yes, the best of all worlds is for trade liberalization to happen simultaneously in all countries, and negotiations have produced considerable progress since the end of World War II, so I’m somewhat agnostic about the best strategy.

But there’s no ambiguity about the ultimate goal of ending protectionism.

P.S. Sometimes bad things happen for good reasons. The income tax in the United States also was adopted in part to offset the foregone revenue from lower trade taxes.

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Singapore is one of my favorite nations for the simple reason that it consistently gets very high scores from Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom (as well as from Doing Business, Global Competitiveness Report, and World Competitiveness Yearbook).

I also greatly admire Singapore’s strict adherence to my Golden Rule for a 10-year period beginning in the late 1990s. Government spending actually shrank by a bit more than 1 percent per year, on average, over that decade.

This reduced the burden of government spending to just 12 percent of economic output, almost as low as it was in North America and Western Europe in the 1800s.

Unfortunately, the public sector has since crept back up to 20 percent of GDP, but that’s still very low compared to the rest of the developed world.

What’s especially attractive is that the welfare state is very small in Singapore. According to the IMF (see page 44), expenditures on “social development” are only about 8 percent of GDP, and that category includes education and health care. If you peruse Singapore budget documents, spending on “transfers” is well under 5 percent of economic output.

Either figure is far below levels of redistribution in other developed nations.

One of the reasons the welfare state is so small is that individuals are required to set aside their own money for health and retirement.

And since the burden of spending is modest, that enables Singapore to have a non-oppressive tax regime.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that a value-added tax was imposed back in the 1990s. Though the rate has stayed low (so far) and hasn’t (yet) become a money machine for big government.

Singapore is also very good in areas other than fiscal policy. It is a shining example of the benefits of open trade. It ranks very highly for rule of law. And there’s very little regulation.

Indeed, Singapore has consistently ranked #2 for economic freedom in recent decades, trailing only Hong Kong (the U.S. briefly edged out Singapore for second place after all the market-friendly reforms of the Reagan and Clinton years, but now we trail by a wide margin thanks to the statism of the Bush-Obama years).

Here’s a graph from Economic Freedom of the World showing how Singapore started at a decent point in 1970 and then had a 20-year period of improvement (most because of deregulation and better monetary policy).

As I repeatedly argue, if you want good economic results, you need good policy.

And that’s exactly the story of Singapore.

I’m currently in the country because I spoke earlier today at a conference on global investment (the audience got quite excited when I explained the effort to defund the OECD).

Walking the streets, it’s hard not to be impressed by the widespread prosperity of the jurisdiction. Sleek buildings. Fancy shops. Lots of professionals.

And ordinary people are the biggest winners. Here’s a remarkable chart from Human Progress showing per capita GDP (in $2015 inflation-adjusted dollars) in Singapore and the United States, along with the world average.

As you can see, Singapore used to be far below the United States and somewhat below the world average. Now it is one of the wealthiest places on the planet.

Singapore’s jump from poverty to prosperity is astounding.

What’s really remarkable is that the country was as poor as Jamaica back in the 1960s. But thanks to rapid economic growth, the people of Singapore enjoy very high living standards today.

The moral of the story is that ordinary people in Singapore enjoy prosperity because the government was smart enough to focus on growth and didn’t worry about inequality.

Here’s what Marian Tupy, one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute, wrote about the country’s incredible growth.

The incredible transformation of Singapore from a sleepy outpost of the British Empire to a global commercial and technological hub was partly facilitated by a very high degree of economic freedom. …As late as 1970, per person income in Singapore was 54 percent of the global average. Today it is 321 percent of the global average.

Now for the bad news.

Singapore is very pro-market, but it’s not very pro-liberty. In an article for the Foundation for Economic Education, Donovan Choy highlights some of the nation’s shortcomings.

Within libertarian circles, Singapore generally enjoys a good reputation for its economic freedom.

But it’s not Nirvana.

The Housing Development Board (HDB), the public housing arm of the state, houses more than 80% of the population in high-rise apartment homes. …Education is largely monopolized by the state from the primary school level up until the university level… Singapore suffers from a severe lack of press freedom, ranking at an alarming 151 in the World Press Freedom Index… The state also controls public broadcasting from television to radio. …Singapore is perhaps most well-known for its non-tolerance of drugs. Drug users can be jailed or housed in rehabilitation centers for up to three years and drug traffickers face the death penalty. …Singaporean males are also subject to mandatory conscription of up to two years by the age of 18, a law that has been in effect since 1967. Civil ownership of guns are outlawed in Singapore.

These are reasons why Singapore does not earn a high score in the Human Freedom Index.

But I’m an economist, so I’m still as positively impressed as I was back in 2009.

P.S. I went to the iconic Raffles Hotel to visit the iconic Long Bar and drink an iconic Singapore Sling. But my attempt to be a stereotypical tourist was derailed because that part of the hotel is being renovated. Which is probably a good outcome since I learned that the Singapore Sling is a gin-based drink, which presumably would not agree with my sensitive palate. Though I did learn that the last wild tiger in Singapore was killed at the hotel back in 1902.

P.P.S. One final policy comment: The bureaucrats at the OECD produced a report on Asian economies and argued that taxes should consume at least 25 percent of GDP to achieve prosperity, which was a remarkable assertion since the report showed that Singapore was the richest nation in the region and has a tax burden barely half that level. That’s an example of what soccer fans call an “own goal.” The OECD wasn’t just being statist, it was being incompetently statist.

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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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I wrote a rather favorable column a few days ago about a new study from economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Their research showed how larger levels of government spending are associated with weaker economic performance, and the results were worth sharing even though the study’s methodology almost certainly led to numbers that understated the case against big government.

Regardless, saying anything positive about research from the OECD was an unusual experience since I’m normally writing critical articles about the statist agenda of the international bureaucracy’s political appointees.

That being said, I feel on more familiar ground today since I’m going to write something negative about the antics of the Paris-based bureaucracy.

The OECD just published Revenue Statistics in Asian Countries, which covers Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines for the 1990-2014 period. Much of the data is useful and interesting, but some of the analysis is utterly bizarre and preposterous, starting with the completely unsubstantiated assertion that there’s a need for more tax revenue in the region.

…the need to mobilise government revenue in developing countries to fund public goods and services is increasing. …In the Philippines and Indonesia, the governments are endeavoring to strengthen their tax revenues and have established tax-to-GDP targets. The Philippines aims to increase their tax-to-GDP ratio to 17% (excluding Social Security contributions) by 2016…and Indonesia aims to reach the same level by 2019.

Needless to say, there’s not even an iota of evidence in the report to justify the assertion that there’s a need for more tax revenue. Not a shred of data to suggest that higher taxes would lead to more economic development or more public goods. The OECD simply makes a claim and offers no backup or support.

But here’s the most amazing part. The OECD report argues that a nation isn’t developed unless taxes consume at least 25 percent of GDP.

These targets will contribute to increasing financial capacity toward the minimum tax-to-GDP ratio of 25% deemed essential to become a developed country.

This is a jaw-dropping assertion in part because most of the world’s rich nations became prosperous back in the 1800s and early 1900s when government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output.

And not only were taxes a concomitantly minor burden during that period, but many nations didn’t have any income taxes at all.

At this point, you may be thinking the OECD bureaucrats are merely guilty of not knowing history.

That certainly would be a charitable explanation of their gross oversight/mistake.

But there’s something else in the study that makes this benign interpretation implausible. The study explicitly notes that Singapore is a super-prosperous developed nation with a very low tax burden – way below the supposed minimum requirement identified by the OECD.

Singapore has the highest GDP per-capita of the six countries and one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios. …The low tax-to-GDP ratio is explained by lower income tax rates (particularly on corporate income) and VAT rates, compared to other Asian countries. …The tax-to-GDP ratio in Singapore is lower in 2014 relative to 2000, driven by the decrease of individual income tax rates and corporate income tax rates.

Here’s a chart from the report showing that taxes consume less than 14 percent of economic output in Singapore.

Needless to say, there’s nothing in the report to square the circle and justify the claim about the supposed link between higher taxes and economic development. Nothing to explain why Singapore manages to be so rich with such a small burden of government. It’s as if the bureaucrats hoped that nobody would notice that numbers in the study undermined their ideologically driven claim that tax burdens should climb in Asia.

Indeed, I wonder if Hong Kong was omitted from the study simply because that would have further undermined the OECD’s preposterous assertion that higher taxes are a route to economic development.

P.S. Having low taxes and a modest burden of government certainly is part of what can make a nation rich and successful, but the real goal should be to have a good mix of free markets and small government. Singapore does that, ranking #2 in Economic Freedom of the World.

Other Asian nations, by contrast, may have modest fiscal burdens, but the potential economic benefit is undermined by statist policies in areas such as trade, regulation, monetary policy, and property rights. This certainly helps to explain why countries such as Indonesia (#79), Malaysia (#62), and the Philippines (#80) have much lower scores for overall economic liberty.

P.P.S. I’m not sure why the OECD would produce such sloppy research. If they simply wanted to create a false narrative, why didn’t the bureaucrats omit Singapore and simply hope nobody knew the numbers from that country (or the historical numbers for North America and Western Europe)? My suspicion is that the senior political types at the OECD wanted to produce a study that would be helpful for certain politicians  in the region (i.e., allow them to justify higher tax burdens) and they figured a lot of people would only pay attention to the press release.

P.P.P.S. The OECD certainly has a track record of dishonest research.

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