Tag Archives: IMF

The unseen costs of the Ex-Im bank

The great 19th Century French economist Frederic Bastiat had good advice when thinking about economics. Actions, habits, and laws, he said,

[produce] not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

The good economist, he said, “takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

So it is with the US Ex-Im bank.

The independent federal agency helps foreign firms finance the purchase of American-made products. They do this by selling insurance to these foreign purchasers, by directly loaning them money, and by guaranteeing loans that others like Goldman Sachs make to these firms.

Ex-Im’s activities produce some seen benefits and these are widely touted by the bank and it’s boosters, such as the National Association of Manufacturers. These seen benefits are:

The gains to foreign purchasers

Since most foreign purchasers are sub-prime borrowers (what could go wrong, right?), the bank’s assistance allows them to obtain credit that private lenders would otherwise be unwilling to extend. At least in the short run, this helps these foreign purchasers.

The gains to U.S. manufacturers

Ex-Im’s loans, loan guarantees and insurance all increase demand for some domestic manufacturers’ products. This allows them to sell more stuff and to sell it at higher prices than they otherwise would. The bank boasts that, on average, “87% of transactions benefit small business exporters of U.S.-made goods and services.” Note the use of the words “transactions” and “small.” The bank is slicing the data here in a way that isn’t entirely honest. More on which below.

But as Bastiat would tell us, these seen benefits are less than half the story. There are also a host of less-conspicuous effects, and all of them are bad. These include:

Excessive risk

Rational lenders are unwilling to finance risky bets unless they are compensated with higher rates of return. These higher interest rates, in turn, make risky borrowers think twice about undertaking bad investments. This is a feature of a well-functioning financial system, not a bug.

Like all goods, capital is scarce and this feature helps ensure it isn’t wasted, steering it to the projects where it can do the most good for people. Ex-Im’s activities, on the other hand, steer capital—at artificially low interest rates—to sub-prime borrowers so they can buy big, expensive products. This is bad for the world economy because it misallocates capital. But in the long run it’s bad for many of the borrowers themselves because it encourages them to take on risks they can ill-afford (which is why I hedged above when I said they gain “in the short run”). Another great French economist, Veronique de Rugy, highlighted this fact in a recent post. As she points out, this isn’t just a hypothetical concern:

In the 1990s, the Ex-Im Bank was so excited to “support” the people of the Republic of Nauru by extending financing assistance to Air Nauru to purchase some, you guessed it, Boeings. When Air Nauru defaulted in 2002, the Ex-Im Bank seized Nauru’s only jet straight off of the runway — leaving the country’s athletes stranded on the tarmac after the Micronesian Games.

Higher prices for manufactured products

Next consider the unseen effect on domestic purchasers. Like Air Nauru, domestic airlines such as Delta, United, Southwest, and dozens of others also buy Boeing aircraft. Unlike Air Nauru, these firms don’t receive loan subsidies. This hurts all of them once, and some of them twice.

First, the international carriers among this group like Delta lose market share to Ex-Im-privileged firms like Korean Air and Emirates Air. This explains why Delta has filed a lawsuit against Ex-Im.

Second, all US carriers—even those like Southwest that only serve the US market—end up paying higher prices for planes because Ex-Im privileges increase the demand for, and therefore the price of, airplanes. As Vero notes in this piece, this has many air carriers worried about a jet plane bubble. Simple economics, of course, predicts that some of this cost will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher ticket prices.

Privileges for banks

Presumably, many of the legislators who routinely vote to reauthorize Ex-Im do so because they want to subsidize domestic manufacturers. Unfortunately, the laws of economics dictate that the actual beneficiaries of a subsidy need not be the intended beneficiaries.

In the case of Ex-Im, a large chunk of the benefit is captured by privileged banks instead of by manufacturers. Thanks to Ex-Im’s loan guarantees, banks are able to make loans to foreign buyers while unloading most of the risk. This is yet one more way in which banks, “privatize gains and socialize losses” (to borrow a phrase used by Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz at an Occupy Wall Street rally).

This privilege sits on top of a pile of other privileges. The IMF recently estimated that in most years the biggest of these privileges—the too big to fail subsidy—is larger than bank profits!

Few gain at the expense of the many

Consider, again, the bank’s assertion that 87 percent of its “transactions” benefit “small business” exporters. Why focus on transactions? Wouldn’t it be more transparent to focus on the size of these transactions? When you break it down this way, as Vero does in this piece, you see that 81 percent of the value of Ex-Im assistance goes to “big businesses” as the bank defines them.

And just how do they define big and small business? Answer: not in the same way others like the Small Business Administration do. Ex-Im’s definition of “small” manufacturers and wholesalers is three times larger (by number of employees) than the SBA’s definition and it includes firms with revenues as high as $21.5 million a year.

A host of pathologies

As I emphasize in the Pathology of Privilege, these favors to a select few domestic manufactures and banks come with a host of problems. In short, privilege “misdirects resources, impedes genuine economic progress, breeds corruption, and undermines the legitimacy of both the government and the private sector.”

But Ex-Im and its beneficiaries don’t want you to see that.

Taxi protests around the world

Yesterday, in Athens, taxi workers went on strike to protest the country’s recent deregulation of their industry. To comply with IMF recommendations, Greece has increased the number of permits available for taxi drivers.

This policy is not an austerity measure per se, but rather a liberalization of the taxi industry, not requiring a change in government spending or taxation. As taxi drivers protest, other Greeks should be celebrating this measure — it will mean more cabs are available at lower prices.

Here in Washington, DC, taxi drivers are also up in arms. Two drivers associations are suing Mayor Vincent Gray and the DC Taxi Commission because of the 2008 switch from fares based on zones to meters. Some drivers say their pay has dropped by 30 percent as a result. They are correct that the meter rate is determined arbitrarily, but most likely the current rate is higher than the market rate would be. As in Athens, the  number of cabs allowed to operate in DC is artificially capped. Jim Epstein writes at Hit & Run:

Since 2010, the D.C. Taxi Commission hasn’t been issuing licenses to new cabbies. There’s no official waiting list, but a representative from the commission told me she receives calls “all day, every day” from potential applicants. In other words, want-to-be cab drivers are clamoring to get into the industry at the going rate.

In both cities politicians have earned favor with cab drivers by restricting their number to keep rates high. But liberalizing taxi policies will benefit all city residents — especially potential new cab drivers — except those who have historically been sheltered from competition.

Can a reduction in government spending stimulate the economy?

This, of course, is quite relevant given the latest news. To help find the answer, I consulted my graduate macroeconomics text. There, on pp. 546-7, I found this passage:

[A] small reduction in current government purchases could signal large future reductions, and therefore cause consumption to rise by more than the fall in government purchases.

Surprisingly, these possibilities are more than just theoretical curiosities. Giavazzi and Pagano (1990) show that fiscal reform packages in Denmark and Ireland in the 1980s caused consumption booms, and they argue that effects operating through expectations were the reason. Similarly, Alesina and Perotti (1997) show that deficit reductions coming from cuts in government employment and transfers are much more likely to be maintained than reductions coming from tax increases, and that, consistent with the importance of expectations, the first type of deficit reduction is often expansionary while the second type usually is not.

I did my graduate work at George Mason, so you may be thinking that this is some free-market fundamental text. It is actually David Romer’s Advanced Macroeconomics (David, of course, is the husband of President Obama’s former CEA chair, Christina Romer).

Since Mr. Romer wrote the passage above (the second edition was published in 2000), the case for expansionary spending cuts has, if anything, strengthened. Consider this 2010 piece by Harvard’s Alberto Alesina. He finds:

[N]ot all fiscal adjustments cause recessions. Countries that have made spending adjustments to reduce their deficits have made large, credible, and decisive cuts. Even in the very short run, many reductions of budget deficits, even sharp ones, have been followed immediately by sustained growth rather than recessions.

Or consider this 2010 piece by David Henderson. It focuses on the Canadian experience of cutting spending in the 1990s. He writes:

Canada was able to escape from chronic deficits and trimmed its debt from nearly 70 percent of GDP to 29 percent of GDP, all without sacrificing growth.

What’s more, “There were six to seven dollars in budget cuts for every dollar of tax increases.”

Or consider another piece, also by Henderson, focusing on post-WWII spending cuts in the U.S. He writes:

In the four years from peak World War II spending in 1944 to 1948, the U.S. government cut spending by $72 billion—a 75-percent reduction. It brought federal spending down from a peak of 44 percent of gross national product (GNP) in 1944 to only 8.9 percent in 1948.

The post-WWII U.S. economy is widely regarded to have been quite healthy. This, of course, confounded Keynesians like Paul Samuelson who had predicted that war demobilization would lead to the “greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.” (emphasis original)

Or try this 2010 piece by Goldman Sachs economists Ben Broadbent and Kevin Daly. They report:

In a review of every major fiscal correction in the OECD since 1975, we find that decisive budgetary adjustments that have focused on reducing government expenditure have (i) been successful in correcting fiscal imbalances; (ii) typically boosted growth; and (iii) resulted in significant bond and equity market outperformance. Tax-driven fiscal adjustments, by contrast, typically fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging for growth.

In contrast, some people are pointing to a new IMF report that claims “fiscal consolidation typically reduces output and raises unemployment in the short term.” But as Alberto Alesina argues, the IMF findings are not all that different from his own. Critically, the IMF agrees that “tax increases are much worse for the economy than spending cuts.” Moreover, the IMF agrees that “after a few years, even large (but spending based) fiscal adjustments create growth for the economy.”

To me, the evidence suggests that Obama’s Deficit Commission chairs are on the right track in emphasizing 75 percent spending cuts relative to 25 percent revenue increases.

Is it Possible that the President thinks Economists Agree That Spending is the Answer?

[W]ith respect to aggregate demand, I don’t know any economist — including, I think, Martin — who would argue that we are more likely to get a bump in aggregate demand from $700 billion of borrowed money going to people like those of us around this table who I suspect if we want a flat-screen TV can afford one right now and are going out and buying one.

If we were going to spend $700 billion, it seems that we’d be wiser having that $700 billion going to folks who would spend that money right away if we were going to boost aggregate demand.

That is President Obama, responding to a question from Martin Feldstein about extending the Bush tax cuts. Note, first of all, that though the president is talking about whether or not we will allow taxes on high-income Americans to rise, he easily slips into the language of spending. In his vernacular, we are “spending $700 billion” when we choose not to raise taxes by $700 billion.

More to the point, however, the quote suggests that the president is under the impression that economists unanimously believe spending increases are wiser than tax cuts. It would be a shame if the president’s advisors gave him this impression.

In 2009, the University of Chicago’s Harold Uhlig reviewed the most-recent literature on this question. By Uhlig’s count, the following studies conclude that, in terms of boosting GDP, tax cuts have a larger impact than spending increases:

Shortly after Uhilg wrote this, Alesina and Ardagna (2009) also found that stimuli based on tax cuts tend to be more effective than stimuli based on spending increases.   

Aside from the spending boost vs. tax cut debate is the question of magnitude. On this score, the Administration’s assumptions are well-outside of the range found in the most-recent studies. According to Uhlig:

With the exception of Gali [,Lopez-Salido, and Valles] (2007), the fiscal multipliers for government spending also typically seem to be considerably more modest than the [Administration assumes].

To this list, I would add Barro and Redlick (2010).

This is not to mention work such as the recent IMF study by Freedman, Kumhof, Laxton, Muir, and Mursula (2010) that finds short-run positive effects from stimuli, but medium-term deleterious effects.

It would be one thing to know about this evidence and to dismiss it. The president, however, seems not to have heard of it.