Escaping the Oil Curse

Libyans have a new lease on life, a feeling that, at long last, they are the masters of their own fate. Perhaps Iraqis, after a decade of warfare, feel the same way. Both countries are oil producers, and there is widespread expectation among their citizens that that wealth will be a big advantage in rebuilding their societies.

Meanwhile, in Africa, Ghana has begun pumping oil for the first time, and Uganda is about to do so as well. Indeed, from West Africa to Mongolia, countries are experiencing windfalls from new sources of oil and mineral wealth. Adding to the euphoria are the historic highs that oil and mineral prices have reached on world markets over the last four years.

Many countries have been in this position before, exhilarated by natural-resource bonanzas, only to see the boom end in disappointment and the opportunity squandered with little payoff in terms of a better quality of life for their people. But, whether in Libya or Ghana, these countries’ current leaders have an advantage: most are well aware of history, and want to know how to avoid the infamous natural-resource “curse.”

To prescribe a cure, one must first diagnose the illness. Why do oil riches turn out to be a curse as often as they are a blessing?

Economists have identified six pitfalls that can afflict natural-resource exporters: commodity-price volatility, crowding out of manufacturing, “Dutch disease” (a booming export industry causes rapid currency appreciation , which undermines other exporters’ competitiveness), excessively rapid resource depletion, inhibition of institutional development, and civil war.

Oil prices are especially volatile, as the large swings over the last five years remind us. The recent oil boom could easily turn to bust, especially if global economic activity slows.

Volatility itself is costly, leaving economies unable to respond effectively to price signals. Temporary commodity booms typically pull workers, capital, and land away from fledgling manufacturing sectors and production of other internationally traded goods. This reallocation can damage long-term economic development if those sectors are the ones that nurture learning by doing and fuel broader productivity gains.

The problem is not just that workers, capital, and land are sucked into the booming commodity sector. They also are frequently lured away from manufacturing by booms in construction and other non-tradable goods and services. The pattern also includes an exuberant expansion of government spending, which can result in bloated public payrolls and large infrastructure projects, both of which are found to be unsustainable when oil prices fall. If the manufacturing sector has been “hollowed out” in the meantime, so much the worse.

Another pitfall is excessively rapid depletion of oil or mineral deposits, in violation of optimal rates of saving, let alone preservation of the environment.

Even if high oil revenues turn out to be permanent, pitfalls nonetheless abound. Governments that can finance themselves simply by retaining physical control over the oil or mineral deposits located within their borders often fail in the long run to develop institutions that are conducive to economic development.  Such countries evolve a hierarchical authoritarian society where the only incentive is to compete for privileged access to commodity rents. In the extreme case, this competition can take the form of civil war. In a country without resource wealth, by contrast, elites have little alternative but to nurture a decentralized economy in which individuals have incentives to work and save. These are the economies that industrialize.

What can countries do to ensure that natural resources are a blessing rather than a curse?  Some policies and institutions have been tried and failed. These include, in particular, attempts to suppress artificially the fluctuations of the global marketplace by imposing price controls, export controls, marketing boards, and cartels.

But some countries have succeeded, and their strategies could be useful models for Libya, Iraq, Ghana, Mongolia, and others to emulate. These include: hedging export earnings – for example, via the oil options market, as Mexico does; ensuring countercyclical fiscal policy – for example via Chile’s kind of structural budget rule; and delegating sovereign wealth funds to professional managers, as Botswana’s Pula Fund does.

Finally, some promising ideas have virtually never been tried at all: linking bonds to oil prices instead of dollars, to protect against the risk of a price decline; choosing Product Price Targeting as an alternative to either inflation targeting or exchange-rate targeting, to play the role of anchor for monetary policy; and distributing oil revenues on a nationwide per capita basis, to ensure that they do not wind up in elites’ Swiss bank accounts.

Leaders have free will. Oil exporters need not be prisoners of a curse that has befallen others. Countries can choose to use their resource bonanzas for the long-term economic advancement of their peoples.

Escaping The Oil Curse

Libyans have a new lease on life, a feeling that, at long last, they are the masters of their own fate. Perhaps Iraqis, after a decade of warfare, feel the same way. Both countries are oil producers, and there is widespread expectation among their citizens that that wealth will be a big advantage in rebuilding their societies.

Meanwhile, in Africa, Ghana has begun pumping oil for the first time, and Uganda is about to do so as well. Indeed, from West Africa to Mongolia, countries are experiencing windfalls from new sources of oil and mineral wealth. Adding to the euphoria are the historic highs that oil and mineral prices have reached on world markets over the last four years.

Many countries have been in this position before, exhilarated by natural-resource bonanzas, only to see the boom end in disappointment and the opportunity squandered with little payoff in terms of a better quality of life for their people. But, whether in Libya or Ghana, these countries’ current leaders have an advantage: most are well aware of history, and want to know how to avoid the infamous natural-resource “curse.”

To prescribe a cure, one must first diagnose the illness. Why do oil riches turn out to be a curse as often as they are a blessing?

Economists have identified six pitfalls that can afflict natural-resource exporters: commodity-price volatility, crowding out of manufacturing, “Dutch disease” (a booming export industry causes rapid currency appreciation , which undermines other exporters’ competitiveness), excessively rapid resource depletion, inhibition of institutional development, and civil war.

Oil prices are especially volatile, as the large swings over the last five years remind us. The recent oil boom could easily turn to bust, especially if global economic activity slows.

Volatility itself is costly, leaving economies unable to respond effectively to price signals. Temporary commodity booms typically pull workers, capital, and land away from fledgling manufacturing sectors and production of other internationally traded goods. This reallocation can damage long-term economic development if those sectors are the ones that nurture learning by doing and fuel broader productivity gains.

The problem is not just that workers, capital, and land are sucked into the booming commodity sector. They also are frequently lured away from manufacturing by booms in construction and other non-tradable goods and services. The pattern also includes an exuberant expansion of government spending, which can result in bloated public payrolls and large infrastructure projects, both of which are found to be unsustainable when oil prices fall. If the manufacturing sector has been “hollowed out” in the meantime, so much the worse.

Another pitfall is excessively rapid depletion of oil or mineral deposits, in violation of optimal rates of saving, let alone preservation of the environment.

Even if high oil revenues turn out to be permanent, pitfalls nonetheless abound. Governments that can finance themselves simply by retaining physical control over the oil or mineral deposits located within their borders often fail in the long run to develop institutions that are conducive to economic development.  Such countries evolve a hierarchical authoritarian society where the only incentive is to compete for privileged access to commodity rents. In the extreme case, this competition can take the form of civil war. In a country without resource wealth, by contrast, elites have little alternative but to nurture a decentralized economy in which individuals have incentives to work and save. These are the economies that industrialize.

What can countries do to ensure that natural resources are a blessing rather than a curse?  Some policies and institutions have been tried and failed. These include, in particular, attempts to suppress artificially the fluctuations of the global marketplace by imposing price controls, export controls, marketing boards, and cartels.

But some countries have succeeded, and their strategies could be useful models for Libya, Iraq, Ghana, Mongolia, and others to emulate. These include: hedging export earnings – for example, via the oil options market, as Mexico does; ensuring countercyclical fiscal policy – for example via Chile’s kind of structural budget rule; and delegating sovereign wealth funds to professional managers, as Botswana’s Pula Fund does.

Finally, some promising ideas have virtually never been tried at all: linking bonds to oil prices instead of dollars, to protect against the risk of a price decline; choosing Product Price Targeting as an alternative to either inflation targeting or exchange-rate targeting, to play the role of anchor for monetary policy; and distributing oil revenues on a nationwide per capita basis, to ensure that they do not wind up in elites’ Swiss bank accounts.

Leaders have free will. Oil exporters need not be prisoners of a curse that has befallen others. Countries can choose to use their resource bonanzas for the long-term economic advancement of their peoples.

[This column originally appeared at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there.]

Politicians Scorn Professors

My preceding blogpost, the Hour of the Technocrats, was inspired by the recent accession of Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, both professional economists, to the prime ministerships of Italy and Greece, respectively.   Today we turn to the U.S., where the political process seldom views academic credentials benevolently.

In the United States, Senator Richard Shelby scorned President Obama’s 2010 nomination of Peter Diamond, an eminent MIT Professor of Economics, and prevented his confirmation as a governor of the Federal Reserve Board.  The Alabama Senator farfetchedly claimed that the nominee was not qualified, and persisted despite the coincidence that Diamond won the Nobel Prize in Economics soon after his nomination (deservedly).   But, then, Shelby was holding up an astounding 70 of President Obama’s nominations, just to try to get two pork projects in his home state funded.   Diamond finally withdrew in June 2011, because Shelby and other anti-technocratic Senators had blocked the confirmation process for 14 months and were clearly going to continue to do so.   Diamond, like Axel Weber in my preceding blogpost, was comfortable foregoing the limelight.

Of course there are other kinds of technocrats than economists.  Senate Republicans also blocked Elizabeth Warren – a Harvard professor, but of Law, not Economics — from becoming the first head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Even at the “quant” end of the finance field spectrum, the anti-technocrats in Congress have hamstrung the Treasury’s new Office of Financial Research, and it has not been possible to find a finance professor to be the first Director of the new agency.   As always, the Senate continues to hold up on political grounds confirmation of highly qualified technocrats for ambassadorships, judgeships, and so on.  The latest was the end last week of the campaign to get the Senate to confirm Don Berwick, another Harvard professor (School of Public Health), who had been doing an excellent job of running Medicare and Medicaid.   Another current example is the stalled nomination of Michael McFaul, an outstandingly qualified political science professor from Stanford, to be ambassador to Russia.   The American public has been losing out on the services of a lot of top-quality officials.

It goes without saying that academic or technical expertise is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion for a successful government official.   Far from it.  On the one hand, many of my colleagues on the faculties of elite universities would not make great policy makers — lacking some of the desirable leadership, managerial, or other interpersonal skills.  On the other hand, many excellent political leaders have not been intellectuals.  George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower are two examples among U.S. presidents.

I would, however, argue that it is necessary to pass a certain threshold of awareness of facts and curiosity about the world.  To take just a few examples of geographical knowledge, a candidate who does not know where the Battle of Concord was fought, where Paul Revere rode, the difference between Brazil and Bolivia, that Africa is not a single nation, which country Iran is, or which country Libya is, is not likely to make a good president.   Call me an egghead if you will; but I consider a decision to invade the wrong country to be more than a minor technical slip.

Politicians Scorn Professors

My preceding blogpost, the Hour of the Technocrats, was inspired by the recent accession of Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, both professional economists, to the prime ministerships of Italy and Greece, respectively.   Today we turn to the U.S., where the political process seldom views academic credentials benevolently.

In the United States, Senator Richard Shelby scorned President Obama’s 2010 nomination of Peter Diamond, an eminent MIT Professor of Economics, and prevented his confirmation as a governor of the Federal Reserve Board.  The Alabama Senator farfetchedly claimed that the nominee was not qualified, and persisted despite the coincidence that Diamond won the Nobel Prize in Economics soon after his nomination (deservedly).   But, then, Shelby was holding up an astounding 70 of President Obama’s nominations, just to try to get two pork projects in his home state funded.   Diamond finally withdrew in June 2011, because Shelby and other anti-technocratic Senators had blocked the confirmation process for 14 months and were clearly going to continue to do so.   Diamond, like Axel Weber in my preceding blogpost, was comfortable foregoing the limelight.

Of course there are other kinds of technocrats than economists.  Senate Republicans also blocked Elizabeth Warren – a Harvard professor, but of Law, not Economics — from becoming the first head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Even at the “quant” end of the finance field spectrum, the anti-technocrats in Congress have hamstrung the Treasury’s new Office of Financial Research, and it has not been possible to find a finance professor to be the first Director of the new agency.   As always, the Senate continues to hold up on political grounds confirmation of highly qualified technocrats for ambassadorships, judgeships, and so on.  The latest was the end last week of the campaign to get the Senate to confirm Don Berwick, another Harvard professor (School of Public Health), who had been doing an excellent job of running Medicare and Medicaid.   Another current example is the stalled nomination of Michael McFaul, an outstandingly qualified political science professor from Stanford, to be ambassador to Russia.   The American public has been losing out on the services of a lot of top-quality officials.

It goes without saying that academic or technical expertise is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion for a successful government official.   Far from it.  On the one hand, many of my colleagues on the faculties of elite universities would not make great policy makers — lacking some of the desirable leadership, managerial, or other interpersonal skills.  On the other hand, many excellent political leaders have not been intellectuals.  George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower are two examples among U.S. presidents.

I would, however, argue that it is necessary to pass a certain threshold of awareness of facts and curiosity about the world.  To take just a few examples of geographical knowledge, a candidate who does not know where the Battle of Concord was fought, where Paul Revere rode, the difference between Brazil and Bolivia, that Africa is not a single nation, which country Iran is, or which country Libya is, is not likely to make a good president.   Call me an egghead if you will; but I consider a decision to invade the wrong country to be more than a minor technical slip.

The Hour of the Technocrats

The Hour of the Technocrats has arrived.   In desperation from debt crises that their gridlocked political systems have created, Italy and Greece both in November chose new Prime Ministers who are technocratic economists rather than politicians:   Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, respectively.  One can even describe them as professors:  Monti has been president of the prestigious Bocconi University when not a European Commissioner in Brussels, and Papademos has been my colleague at Harvard Kennedy School in the year since he finished his term as Deputy Governor of the European Central Bank (even teaching a class I usually teach).

No doubt, whatever happens, pundits who evaluate their performance will soon be writing: “Professors Earn ‘A’ in Economics, but Flunk Politics.”   This will be unfair.   It is not lack of political ability that will stymie them, but lack of political power in the mandates they have been given.    Mario Monti, despite very strong popular support among Italians for his technocratic government, does not have a parliamentary majority that he can rely on.   Berlusconi, in boasting that he can pull the plug on Monti anytime he wants, has made it clear that he still will not lay aside his personal political interests for the good of the country even when everyone understands what he is doing.

Lucas Papademos in Greece has been dealt an even weaker hand.  Despite his best efforts to insist on a term longer than three months and the ability to appoint some members of his cabinet, as requirements for accepting the Prime Ministership, in the end he could not get even these minimum conditions.

The elevation of these two outstanding civil servants comes after a period when some other professors have been squeezed out by the political process.   Several good technocratic economists from emerging market countries were passed over in June, when choosing the successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

Next, an example from Germany. Axel Weber in January 2011 resigned as President of the Deutsche Bundesbank and member of the Governing Council of the European Central Bank.  The interpretation in the press was that his statements opposing ECB purchases of bonds issued by troubled periphery countries had been evidence of political naivety on his part.   The press could not imagine that a technocrat might voluntarily relinquish a sure shot at a position of great power — successor to Jean Claude Trichet as ECB President — on a matter of principle.    But that is precisely what Weber was doing.  The willingness to give up power if necessary is one of the advantages of professors for such positions.  (It is a different matter that the ECB presidency then went to Mario Draghi, who is also an economist and technocrat, and in fact the perfect man for the job.)

It is a mistake to conflate technocrat elites (they are the ones with the PhDs or other advanced economics degrees) with other kinds of elites (the ones with money or power, especially if they got them from their parents).   Most economists understood very well the possible downside of European monetary union.  In the late 1980s, when Jacques Delors asked major European leaders what the next step should be in the European integration project, they underestimated the technical difficulties when they opted for monetary integration.

Technocrats can play a useful role.  One of their advantages is acting as an honest broker when traditional politicians have become discredited or parties are deadlocked.  Another is the credibility that comes when they are not motivated by getting re-elected, either because their term in office has been limited in advance or because it is know that they in fact prefer the quiet life back at the university.  The most obvious advantage to technocrats comes when the biggest problems facing the country are in large part technical such as proposing economic reforms or negotiating loan terms.  A good precedent in Italy is Carlo Ciampi, who took the governing reins in 1993 after Italy was forced to drop out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, but managed to repeal the scala mobile (the wage indexation system), beat down inflation, and re-board the train of European monetary integration.

Obvious disadvantages of some technocrats include lack of managerial experience, lack of perceived legitimacy, and lack of a domestic political powerbase.   Monti and Papademos both have managerial experience and, for now, perceived legitimacy.   The last of the three factors will be the limiting factor for them.

Among current heads of state who could be considered technocrats are President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, President Sebastián Piñera of Chile, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.  Nobody could accuse these three of having led sheltered lives or being unaccustomed to making difficult decisions.   But it happens that all three received their ivory tower training at the Harvard.  Calderón took a record three courses from me.   Unfortunately, dealing with violent drug lords was not on my syllabus.

Having shiny international credentials is not always an advantage.  When Sirleaf received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, the speculation was that this evidence of her good image abroad could hurt her with the voters at home in her campaign for re-election.   Analogously, Prime Ministers Monti and Papademos hold gold card memberships in the clubs of EU and euro elites that will help them obtain support for their countries abroad but leave them vulnerable domestically to charges that they are lackeys of foreign powers.

It is good that Rome and Athens, the two seats of classical western civilization, have turned to these two civilized men for leadership. I hope the politicians realize that Monti and Papademos cannot work miracles if they are not given the political tools to get their policies enacted.

[A version of this column appeared Nov. 25 on Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there]

A subsequent blog post will extend the discussion of technocrats to some recent examples from the United States of highly qualified academics who have been blocked from office for political reasons.

The Hour Of The Technocrats

The Hour of the Technocrats has arrived.   In desperation from debt crises that their gridlocked political systems have created, Italy and Greece both in November chose new Prime Ministers who are technocratic economists rather than politicians:   Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, respectively.  One can even describe them as professors:  Monti has been president of the prestigious Bocconi University when not a European Commissioner in Brussels, and Papademos has been my colleague at Harvard Kennedy School in the year since he finished his term as Deputy Governor of the European Central Bank (even teaching a class I usually teach).

No doubt, whatever happens, pundits who evaluate their performance will soon be writing: “Professors Earn ‘A’ in Economics, but Flunk Politics.”   This will be unfair.   It is not lack of political ability that will stymie them, but lack of political power in the mandates they have been given.    Mario Monti, despite very strong popular support among Italians for his technocratic government, does not have a parliamentary majority that he can rely on.   Berlusconi, in boasting that he can pull the plug on Monti anytime he wants, has made it clear that he still will not lay aside his personal political interests for the good of the country even when everyone understands what he is doing.

Lucas Papademos in Greece has been dealt an even weaker hand.  Despite his best efforts to insist on a term longer than three months and the ability to appoint some members of his cabinet, as requirements for accepting the Prime Ministership, in the end he could not get even these minimum conditions.

The elevation of these two outstanding civil servants comes after a period when some other professors have been squeezed out by the political process.   Several good technocratic economists from emerging market countries were passed over in June, when choosing the successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

Next, an example from Germany. Axel Weber in January 2011 resigned as President of the Deutsche Bundesbank and member of the Governing Council of the European Central Bank.  The interpretation in the press was that his statements opposing ECB purchases of bonds issued by troubled periphery countries had been evidence of political naivety on his part.   The press could not imagine that a technocrat might voluntarily relinquish a sure shot at a position of great power — successor to Jean Claude Trichet as ECB President — on a matter of principle.    But that is precisely what Weber was doing.  The willingness to give up power if necessary is one of the advantages of professors for such positions.  (It is a different matter that the ECB presidency then went to Mario Draghi, who is also an economist and technocrat, and in fact the perfect man for the job.)

It is a mistake to conflate technocrat elites (they are the ones with the PhDs or other advanced economics degrees) with other kinds of elites (the ones with money or power, especially if they got them from their parents).   Most economists understood very well the possible downside of European monetary union.  In the late 1980s, when Jacques Delors asked major European leaders what the next step should be in the European integration project, they underestimated the technical difficulties when they opted for monetary integration.

Technocrats can play a useful role.  One of their advantages is acting as an honest broker when traditional politicians have become discredited or parties are deadlocked.  Another is the credibility that comes when they are not motivated by getting re-elected, either because their term in office has been limited in advance or because it is know that they in fact prefer the quiet life back at the university.  The most obvious advantage to technocrats comes when the biggest problems facing the country are in large part technical such as proposing economic reforms or negotiating loan terms.  A good precedent in Italy is Carlo Ciampi, who took the governing reins in 1993 after Italy was forced to drop out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, but managed to repeal the scala mobile (the wage indexation system), beat down inflation, and re-board the train of European monetary integration.

Obvious disadvantages of some technocrats include lack of managerial experience, lack of perceived legitimacy, and lack of a domestic political powerbase.   Monti and Papademos both have managerial experience and, for now, perceived legitimacy.   The last of the three factors will be the limiting factor for them.

Among current heads of state who could be considered technocrats are President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, President Sebastián Piñera of Chile, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.  Nobody could accuse these three of having led sheltered lives or being unaccustomed to making difficult decisions.   But it happens that all three received their ivory tower training at the Harvard.  Calderóntook a record three courses from me.   Unfortunately, dealing with violent drug lords was not on my syllabus.

Having shiny international credentials is not always an advantage.  When Sirleaf received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, the speculation was that this evidence of her good image abroad could hurt her with the voters at home in her campaign for re-election.   Analogously, Prime Ministers Monti and Papademos hold gold card memberships in the clubs of EU and euro elites that will help them obtain support for their countries abroad but leave them vulnerable domestically to charges that they are lackeys of foreign powers.

It is good that Rome and Athens, the two seats of classical western civilization, have turned to these two civilized men for leadership. I hope the politicians realize that Monti and Papademos cannot work miracles if they are not given the political tools to get their policies enacted.

[A version of this column appeared Nov. 25 on Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there]

A subsequent blog post will extend the discussion of technocrats to some recent examples from the United States of highly qualified academics who have been blocked from office for political reasons.