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Posts Tagged ‘World Bank’

I explained last year that there is an inverse relationship between government efficiency and the size of government.

And Mark Steyn made the same point, using humor, back in 2012.

Interestingly, we have some unexpected allies.

In a recently released study, two economists for the World Bank decided to investigate the effectiveness of government spending.

Governments of developing countries typically spend resources equivalent to between 15 and 30 percent of GDP. Hence, small changes in the efficiency of public spending could have a significant impact on GDP and on the attainment of the government’s objectives. The first challenge faced by stakeholders is measuring efficiency. This paper attempts such quantification and verifies empirical regularities in the cross country-variation in the efficiency scores.

So they calculated how much different governments were spending and the results that were being achieved.

Using two different methodologies, here’s what they found for health spending and life expectancy.

The goal, of course, is to get good results (to be higher on the vertical axis) without having to spend a lot of money (in other words, try to be farther left on the horizontal axis).

And here are the numbers for education quality and education spending.

The economist then crunched all the numbers to determine the relationship between spending and outcomes.

The results may surprise some people.

Government expenditure (GOVEXP) is negatively associated with efficiency scores in education (Tables 14 a and b). This result is robust to changes in the output indicator selected. In the output efficiency case, the impact is ambiguous specially when the PISA Math and Science scores are the output indicators (Table 14 b). In health (Tables 15 a and b), the negative association is present in both input and output efficiency. In infrastructure, the expenditure variables (GOVEXP and PUBGFC10PC) are negative in the six output indicators that are used (Table 16a).23 There is a robust trade-off between size of expenditure and efficiency. …The share of public financing within the total (sum of public and private) is robustly associated with lower efficiency scores.

But here’s another surprise.

These World Bank results are not an outlier.

The European Central Bank has two separate studies (here and here) that conclude smaller government is more effective.

And the International Monetary Fund found that decentralized government is more efficient.

P.S. Don’t forget that this competency argument for small government is augmented by the economic argument for small government.

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I periodically explain that pro-market policies are the best way of helping poor people.

The reason rich countries are rich is because they had lengthy periods of limited government, free markets, and the rule of law.

And the convergence literature shows that the same thing is true for developing nations.

Today, let’s look at some new research from the World Bank on how good policy plays a role in generating wealth from natural resources. The authors start by explaining the issue they want to investigate.

The literature on economic development often assumes that natural resource endowments are exogenous. …the resource economics literature has emphasized that the resource base is endogenous to investment in exploration and extraction. That literature has, however, overlooked the role that market orientation and institutions play in driving investments in the resource sector. Our aim is to bridge the gap between these two literatures and explore the effect of market orientation on the discovery of proven (known) natural resource wealth.

They cite the United States as an example of a country that benefited from the right policies.

The experience of the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth century provides a historical account of the role of market orientation in driving natural wealth. Although the United States at the time of independence was considered to be a country of “abundance of land but virtually no mining potential” (O’Toole, 1977), by 1913 it was the world’s dominant producer of virtually every major industrial mineral (David and Wright, 1997). Rather than being driven by a comparative advantage in geological endowments, this resource-based development of the United States was driven among other things by an open market orientation and an accommodating legal environment with the government claiming no ultimate title to mineral rents

And they note that there is additional anecdotal evidence that liberalization produces good results.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that increased market orientation was followed by increased discoveries across continents and types of natural resources (see Table 1). The increase in discoveries after countries open up to the global economy appears to be quite stark. In Peru, for example, discoveries more than quadrupled, in Chile they tripled, and in Mexico they doubled. In Ghana, discoveries only started to occur after the opening of the economy.

Here’s a table showing the dramatic increase in discoveries after selected nations shift to a pro-market approach.

The authors want to see if such results are either random or policy-driven.

So they put together a detailed model and gathered lots of data.

…we put forward a simple two-region model of endogenous reserves based on Pindyck (1978) where multinational corporations are faced with an implicit tax which proxies for how closed market orientation is, and seek the lowest cost location. The model explores the interplay between market orientation and other channels such as the increase in the marginal cost of discoveries and (demand driven) natural resource price shocks. …For our empirical analysis we build a unique and hitherto unexploited dataset of the universe of world-wide major natural resource discoveries since 1950, covering 128 countries, 33 types of natural resources and over 60 years.

Here’s an example of the data they utilized.

And here are the results.

I’m not surprised to learn that good policy (i.e., free markets) generate a substantial increase in economic activity.

…our empirical analysis shows that market orientation causes a statistically and economically significant increase in natural resource discoveries. Our point estimates indicate that going from a closed to an open market orientation increases discoveries by 80-140 percent. …In a thought experiment whereby economies in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa remained closed, they would have only achieved one quarter of the actual increase in discoveries they have experienced since the early 1990s.

The benefits are especially significant in developing nations, where market reforms appear to have produced a four-fold increase in the discovery of natural resources.

Here’s a look at the data for the entire study.

As you can see, there’s always an element of randomness and uncertainty in econometric research (“noise”), but the trend is readily apparent and the statistical tests provide a good amount of confidence about the strength of the relationship between more economic freedom and more economic activity.

I have two takeaways from this research.

First, we have the obvious result that property rights, rule of law, and other market-based policies are needed to help the poor.

Second, this is additional confirmation of my gut feeling that the World Bank is the best (least worst?) of the international bureaucracies. Yes, they waste money and are capable of producing bad research, but the organization’s culture seems to be focused on what changes are needed to help poor countries. And that often results in solid research (for other examples, see here, here, here, here, and here).

You can occasionally find good analysis from other international bureaucracies, such as the OECD and IMF, but it’s far more likely that those organizations will promote statist analysis because of a pro-government mindset.

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To be blunt, I don’t think the World Bank should exist. We don’t need an international bureaucracy to promote economic development in poor nations. Particularly since the policies that we know will work – free markets and small government – oftentimes are hindered by intervention from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank.

For example, I’ve spent the past few days in Vanuatu, where I’ve been fighting against the adoption of an income tax, and I’ve been repeatedly told that the World Bank is one of the groups (along with the Australian Tax Office) urging the adoption of this anti-growth levy. It is both depressing and upsetting that outsiders are seeking to hinder growth in this poor nation, but what really galls me is that World Bank bureaucrats (like their colleagues at other international bureaucracies) are exempt from paying any income tax.

All this being said, my general philosophical hostility (and, in Vanuatu, targeted genuine anger) toward the World Bank doesn’t preclude me from admitting when the bureaucracy does good work. It has played a positive role in helping some nations set up private retirement systems, and it has produced research warning about the link between corruption and complicated tax systems.

Perhaps most laudable, the World Bank every year publishes Doing Business, an index that dispassionately measures the degree to which government policy imposes costs on those who create and operate companies. Indeed, it was just two months ago that I wrote about the most recent issue (mostly to grouse that America is falling in the rankings, so thanks Obama).

All of which puts me in a strange position, because although I have written that the World Bank is my “least despised international bureaucracy,” I never thought I would dedicate an entire column to defending its work.

But a friend formerly known as the Princess of the Levant sent me an article by José Antonio Ocampo and Edmund Fitzgerald, which attacks Doing Business for…gasp…encouraging tax competition.

Since I’m a knee-jerk defender of tax competition (and bearing in mind that the enemy of your enemy is sometimes your friend), I feel obliged to jump into the debate and defend the World Bank’s report.

Here’s the basic argument of Ocampo and Fitzgerald.

…there is a serious flaw in the report’s formula: the way it treats corporate taxation. …The problem is that “regulatory burden,” according to Doing Business, includes…promoting budget-straining tax competition among countries… This may sound like an argument for overhauling Doing Business’ “paying taxes” indicator. But what is really needed is for Doing Business to drop that indicator altogether…when it comes to the paying taxes indicator, the report has things all wrong. Indeed, it runs counter to the global consensus on the need for effective international cooperation to ensure equitable collection of tax revenues, including measures to limit tax avoidance by multinationals and other private firms. A race to the bottom in corporate taxation will only hurt poor people and poor countries. If Doing Business is to live up to its own slogan, “equal opportunity for all,” it should abandon the tax indicator altogether.

Wow. I find it remarkable that leftists openly argue in favor of suppressing information on tax policy because of their ideological hostility to tax competition.

For all intents and purposes, they’re admitting that taxes do matter.

The article also makes some other assertions that deserve a bit of attention. Most notably, the authors repeat the silly claim by some leftists that the way to get more growth is with a bigger government financed by higher taxes.

…taxes that are necessary to fund public infrastructure and basic social services – both of which are critical to enhance growth and employment. Even the report recognizes that, for most economies, taxes are the main source of the government revenues needed to fund “projects related to health care, education, public transport, and unemployment benefits, among others.”

Yet if it’s true that big government stimulates growth, why did the world’s richest nations become rich when government was very small and taxes were largely nonexistent?

Ocampo and Fitzgerald somehow want people to believe that if a little bit of government spending is associated with good economic results, then this somehow means a lot of government must be associated with better economic results.

Maybe somebody should introduce them to the concepts of diminishing returns and negative returns. And once they master those concepts, they’ll be ready to learn about the Rahn Curve. Heck, there’s even a World Bank study I can recommend for them.

Though the authors do raise one semi-decent point. Some of the taxes paid by companies actually are borne by workers. Ocampo and Fitzgerald don’t seem to understand how this works since they jumble together some taxes that are borne by labor with other that are borne by capital, but there is a kernel of truth in their argument.

Doing Business exaggerates the tax burden on companies. For one thing, it considers all the kinds of taxes firms might pay – not just corporate income tax. Specifically, the report’s estimates for “total tax rate as a proportion of profits” include taxes for employees’ health insurance and pensions; property and property transfers; dividends, capital gains, and financial transactions; and public services like waste collection and infrastructure. Those are taxes that should be categorized as social contributions or service charges.

Having bent over backwards to say something nice about their article, let’s now close by highlighting the most preposterous assertion in their piece.

They basically reject the entire field of microeconomics and the underlying principles of price theory – not to mention reams of academic evidence – by denying that tax rates have any impact on behavior.

…the assumption underpinning it – that low corporate taxation promotes growth – does not withstand scrutiny. Research conducted by the International Monetary Fund and others indicates that tax competition does not promote productive investment worldwide.

Remarkable. They even think citing the IMF somehow strengthens their case, when that’s actually more akin to citing Dr. Kevorkian.

P.S. Just in case anyone is worried that this pro-Doing Business column means I’m getting soft on the World Bank, rest assured that I will never be a fan of a bureaucracy that equates higher taxes with a good report card. But I’ll always be the first to admit when an international bureaucracy does good work.

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For data-loving policy wonks, the World Bank’s Doing Business report is a fascinating look at the degree to which nations have a policy and governance environment that is conducive to economic activity.

Unlike Economic Freedom of the World, it’s not designed to measure whether a jurisdiction has small government. Doing Business is probably best described as measuring quality of governance and whether a nation has sensible business policy.

That being said, there’s a lot of overlap between the rankings of the two publications. Indeed, you’ll notice many free-market countries in the top 20 of Doing Business, led by the “unsung success story” of New Zealand, followed by the capitalist haven of Singapore.

The United States is ranked #8, and you’ll notice most of the Nordic nations with very good scores, along with two of the Baltic nations.

Here’s some of the report’s analysis, including the unsurprising observation that countries with market-friendly policies tend to have high incomes (a lesson one wishes Hillary Clinton was capable of absorbing).

OECD high-income economies have on average the most business-friendly regulatory systems, followed by Europe and Central Asia. There is, however, a large variation within those two regions. New Zealand has a ranking of 1 while Greece has a ranking of 61; FYR Macedonia stands at 10 while Tajikistan is at 128. The Sub-Saharan Africa region continues to be home to the economies with the least business-friendly regulations on average.

If you’re wondering where the rest of world’s nations rank, click on the table in the excerpt. One thing that stands out is that Venezuela – finally! – isn’t in last place. Though being 187 out of 190 is not exactly something to brag about.

While it’s good to give favorable attention to the nations with the highest scores, it’s also worthwhile to see which countries are moving in the right direction at the fastest pace.

Ten economies are highlighted this year for making the biggest improvements in their business regulations—Brunei Darussalam, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Belarus, Indonesia, Serbia, Georgia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Kudos to Georgia (the one wedged between Turkey and Russia on the Black Sea, not the one that is home to my beloved – but underperforming – Bulldogs). It’s the only country that is both in the overall top 20 and among the 10 nations that delivered the most positive reforms.

Here’s the table from the report showing why these 10 nations enjoyed a lot of improvement.

The report observes that a more sensible regulatory approach is associated with higher levels of prosperity.

A considerable body of evidence confirms that cross-country differences in the quality of business regulation are strongly correlated with differences in income per capita across economies.

But here’s the part that should open a few eyes among our leftist friends.

A more market-friendly regulatory environment also is linked to lower levels of inequality.

There is a negative association between the Gini index, which measures income inequality within an economy, and the distance to frontier score, which measures the quality and efficiency of business regulation when the data are compared over time (figure 1.8). Data across multiple years and economies show that as economies improve business regulation, income inequality tends to decrease in parallel.

As I’ve said many times tomorrow, I don’t care about differences in income. I simply want economic liberty so everybody has a chance to earn more income.

Nonetheless, it’s good have some evidence for statists who fixate on how the pie is sliced. Here’s the relevant chart from the report.

And here’s another chart showing that lots of regulation and red tape in labor markets (inevitably imposed for the ostensible goal of “protecting” workers) is correlated with a bigger underground economy.

Reminds me of the research showing how “labor protection” laws actually hurt workers.

Let’s now turn to the tax component, which predictably the part that grabbed my interest.

The score for this component is based on both the tax burden and the cost of tax compliance.

While the size of the tax cost imposed on businesses has implications for their ability to invest and grow, the efficiency of the tax administration system is also critical for businesses. A low cost of tax compliance and efficient tax-related procedures are advantageous for firms. Overly complicated tax systems are associated with high levels of tax evasion, large informal sectors, more corruption and less investment.

Here’s a table from the report showing some of the good reforms that have happened in various nations.

Sadly, America did not make any improvements in tax policy, so we don’t show up on any of the lists.

But since we’re on that topic, let’s now take a closer look at the United States. As already noted, America is ranked #8, which obviously is a reasonably good score.

But if you look at the various components, you sort of get the same story that we saw with the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, namely that there are some sub-par government policies that are hampering an otherwise very efficient private economy.

I’m particularly displeased that the U.S. scores so poorly (#51) in “starting a business.” And just imagine how much the score will drop if statists succeed in forcing states like Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada to alter their business-friendly incorporation laws.

And I’m also unhappy that we rank #8 when the United States started at #3 in the World Bank’s inaugural 2006 edition of Doing Business. Thanks Bush! Thanks Obama!

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I don’t like international bureaucracies because they generally push for policies that expand the burden of government and undermine economic growth.

But I recognize that there are some good people who work at these institutions and I’m always willing to acknowledge when they publish good research.

The IMF said that Greece had reached the tipping point where taxes were too high.

The World Bank put together a report showing how anti-money laundering regulations hurt the poor.

The United Nations acknowledged the Laffer-Curve insight that taxes can be too high.

The OECD admitted that income taxes undermine growth and that tax competition restrains the greed of the political class.

The European Central Bank found excessive government spending undermines economic performance.

We can now add some new research to that list. The World Bank has just published a new study highlighting the link between tax complexity and tax corruption.

You can peruse the entire report if you’re so inclined, but here are the key details from the abstract.

This paper seeks to find empirical evidence of a link between tax simplification and corruption in tax administration. …The study includes 104 countries from different income groups and regions of the world. The time period is 2002–12. The empirical findings support the existence of a significant link between the measure of tax corruption and tax simplicity, so a less complex tax system is shown to be associated with lower corruption in tax administration. It is predicted that the combined effect of a 10 percent reduction in both the number of payments and the time to comply with tax requirements can lower tax corruption by 9.64 percent….The positive link between tax simplicity and lower tax corruption has useful policy implications.

There are a few caveats. While people have a greater incentive to rig the system when tax rates are high, the report only addresses this issue tangentially. This is a very unfortunate oversight.

Also, the data show that corruption is higher in developing nations, which is not terribly surprising. Though I think this might be unfair because corruption is narrowly defined so that it’s simply a measure of lawbreaking.

I suspect there are similar amounts of corruption in developed nations, but it takes the form of influence peddling and legislative favors. That’s definitely the mother’s milk of Washington’s sleazy insiders.

And if you look at this chart, this chart, or this chart, there’s no doubt that the internal revenue code is riddled with loopholes.

This video elaborates on the connection between bloated government and legal corruption.

And this video shows how our corrupt tax code could be fixed.

P.S. Just so you don’t think I’m getting soft-hearted about the World Bank, just remember that this is the bureaucracy that put together a tax “report card” that gave nations higher grades for having more punitive fiscal policy.

P.P.S. In the interests of fairness, I am a fan of the World Bank’s Doing Business Index.

P.P.P.S. I’ve written several times about overpaid bureaucrats and fat-cat lobbyists.

Well, here’s a look at per capita personal income in Washington, DC, compared to the rest of America.

You’ll notice that Washington got substantially richer during both Bush Administrations.

But it’s not just the District of Columbia. If you click on this map, you’ll see that a majority of America’s richest communities are the suburbs of Washington.

A lot of fat and happy people living directly or indirectly off your tax dollars.

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Remember when you were a kid and your parents would either be happy or angry depending on whether your report card said you were trying hard or being a slacker? No matter whether your grades were good or bad, it helped to get an “A for Effort.”

But sometimes a high level of effort isn’t a good thing.

The World Bank has a new study that measures national tax burdens. But instead of using conventional measures, such as top tax rates or tax collections as a share of GDP, the international bureaucracy has developed an index that measures “tax effort” and “tax capacity” after adjusting for variables such as per-capita GDP, corruption, and demographics.

One goal of the study is to develop an apples-to-apples way of comparing tax burdens for nations at various levels of development. Poor nations, for instance, tend to have low levels of tax revenue even though they often have high tax rates. This is partly because of Laffer Curve reasons, but perhaps even more so because of corruption and incompetence. Rich nations, by contrast, usually have much greater ability to enforce their tax codes. So if you want to compare the tax system of Paraguay with the tax system of Sweden, you need to take these factors into account.

Here’s a description of how the authors addressed this issue.

Measuring taxation performance of countries is both theoretically and practically challenging. …tax economists have attempted to deal with this problem by applying an empirical approach to estimate the determinants of tax collection and identify the impact of such variables on each country’s taxable capacity. The development of a tax effort index, relating the actual tax revenues of a country to its estimated taxable capacity, provides us with a tempting measure which considers country specific fiscal, demographic, and institutional characteristics. …Tax effort is defined as an index of the ratio between the share of the actual tax collection in GDP and the taxable capacity.

This is a worthwhile project. There sometimes are big differences between nations and those should be part of the equation when comparing tax policies. Indeed, this is why my recent post on the rising burden of the value-added tax looked at data for nations at different levels of development.

But I’m irked by the World Bank study because it’s really measuring “tax onerousness.” I’m not even sure onerousness is a word, but I sure don’t like the term “tax effort” because it implies that a higher tax burden is a good thing. After all, we learned from our report cards that it’s good to demonstrate high effort and not be a slacker.

And just so you know I’m not just imagining things, the authors explicitly embrace the notion that bigger tax burdens are desirable. They assert (without any evidence, of course) that higher levels of tax promote “development” and that more money for politicians is “desirable.”

The international development community is increasingly recognizing the centrality of effective taxation to development. …higher tax revenues are important to lower the aid dependency in low-income countries. They also encourage good governance, strengthen state building and promote government accountability. …many developing countries experience a chronic gap between the actual and desirable levels of tax revenues. Taxation reforms are needed to close this gap.

If the authors of the study looked at economic history, they would understand that they have things backwards. “Effective taxation” doesn’t lead to “development.” It’s the other way around. The western world became rich when the burden of government was very small and most nations didn’t even have income tax regimes. It was only after nations because prosperous that politicians figured out how to extract significant shares of economic output.

But let’s set that aside and see which nations have the most and least onerous tax systems. Here’s a table from the report and it seems that Papua New Guinea has the world’s worst tax system and Bahrain has the best tax system. Among developed nations, New Zealand is the worst and Japan is the best. The United States (circled in red) gets a decent score. We’re not nearly as good as Switzerland and we’re slightly worse than Canada, but our politicians expend less “effort” than their counterparts in nations such as France, Italy, and Belgium.

By the way, I’m not endorsing either the methodology or the results. I like what the authors are trying to do (at least in terms of creating an apples-to-apples measure), but some of the results seem at odds with reality. New Zealand’s tax system isn’t great, but it certainly doesn’t seem as bad as the French tax code. And I have a hard time believing that Japan’s tax code is less onerous than the Swiss system.

The World Bank study also breaks down the data so that countries can be put into a matrix based on how much money they collect and how much “effort” they expend.

Here’s where the authors let their bias show. In their descriptions of the various boxes, they reflexively assume that higher tax collections are a good thing. Here is some of what they wrote in that section of the study.

The collection of taxes in this group of countries is currently low and lies below their respective taxable capacity. These countries have potential to succeed in deepening comprehensive tax policy and administration reforms focusing on revenue enhancement. …Botswana and Chile were originally in the low-effort, low-collection group, but they made it to the high-effort, high-collection group after recent improvements in revenue performance. …Although countries in this [high collection, low effort] group have already achieved a high tax collection, fiscally they still have the potential to implement reforms to reduce distortions and reach a higher level of efficiency of tax collection, since their tax effort index is low.

Very Orwellian, wouldn’t you say? We’re supposed to conclude that it’s bad if nations are “below their respective taxable capacity” because they can “succeed in deepening comprehensive tax policy” for purposes of “revenue enhancement.” Other nations, though, got gold stars because of “improvements in revenue performance.” And others were encouraged to try harder, even if they already collected a lot of revenue, in order to “reach of a higher level of efficiency of tax collection.”

But, to be fair, the study does include some semi-sensible comments acknowledging that there are limits to the greed of the political class. For all intents and purposes, the authors warn that there will be Laffer Curve effects if “high effort” nations seek to make their tax systems even more onerous.

Given that the level of tax intake in this group of countries is already high and stays above their respective taxable capacity, a further increase in tax revenue collection may lead to unintended economic distortions. …low-income countries with a low level of tax collection but high tax effort have less opportunity to increase tax revenues without possibly creating distortions or high compliance costs.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the lingo, “distortion” refers to the economic damage caused by high tax rates. This can be because high tax rates lead to a reduction in work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, and other productive behaviors. Or it can be because high tax rates encourage people to make economically inefficient choices solely for tax planning purposes.

So the fact that the World Bank recognizes that taxes can hurt economic performance in at least some circumstances puts them ahead of the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation. That’s damning with faint praise, to be sure, but I wanted to close on an upbeat note.

P.S. If you peruse the matrix, you’ll notice that New Zealand is considered a developing country. I’m sure that will be the source of amusement to my friends in Australia.

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I have a love-hate attitude toward international bureaucracies.

I’m mostly negative about organizations such as the IMF, World Bank, UN, and OECD. In part this is because they are a very expensive burden on taxpayers, but also because they generally push for bad policy.

It’s reprehensible, for instance, that the OECD has allied itself with the Obama Administration to push for class-warfare tax policy. And it’s disgusting that these pampered bureaucrats at the IMF get tax-free salaries while pushing for bailouts and higher taxes.

But I confess that the international bureaucracies sometimes generate good data and produce interesting studies. The World Bank, for instance, showed how the welfare state and excessive government spending are reducing prosperity in Europe. And the European Central Bank also has produced solid research showing that large public sectors undermine economic growth.

One very good source of data from an international bureaucracy is the Doing Business Index, published each year by the World Bank. As you can see from the image (click to enlarge), the United States does relatively well in this ranking.

Since the United States has dropped in the Economic Freedom of the World Index and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, it’s nice to see that the news isn’t all bad in the international rankings.

The one area where the U.S. gets a very poor score, though, is in the “paying taxes” category. This is yet another reason why we should junk the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Hong Kong and Singapore are at the top of the rankings, unsurprisingly. The Nordic nations also do well, which fits with the analysis showing they are very free market in areas other than fiscal policy. And it’s always good to see Estonia with a relatively high score.

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