Sunday, December 26, 2010

Can the Eurozone survive?

The ongoing difficulties in overcoming the persistence of debt-to-GDP ratio in EU countries highlight the question whether the European Monetary Union can survive the set of shocks which prevailed since the 2008/2009 economic and financial crisis. Recently, European Commission has prested the 2010 review of public finances in EMU (link), suggesting that macroeconomic outlook for Eurozone economies has deteriorated in the light of a growing debt-to-GDP ratio.

The launch of government bailouts in various European countries has added considerable amount to the stock of public debt across the Eurozone. Since 2008/2009, general government balance in Eurozone countries has continually resulted in persistent government deficits which further added to the stock of debt. Since public debt is by definition the sum of previous deficits, the European macroeconomic outlook suffers significantly from downgraded stability of public debt.

The anatomy of sluggish economic recovery in Eurozone consists of different set of economic policies. Countries at the European periphery (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain) seem to be hit most by the sluggish economic recovery. From the viewpoint of macreconomic stability, the economic policymakers in these countries have pursued the most discretionary economic policies to mitigate the effects of decline in GDP on employment, earnings and tax revenues. In addition, highly expansionary monetary policy by the European Central Bank provided a bulk of quantitative easing, resulting flooding liquidity to supplement the interbank lending and, hence, to contain the effect of overleveraged financial sector on macroeconomic stability. In Ireland, income per capita in 2010 notably decline back to 2004 level (link). As I previously emphasized in one of my previous posts (link), the depth of the economic crisis in Ireland is largely attributed to the overleveraged banking sector, vulnerable to the interbank interest rate increases. Since the sovereign CDS spread on Ireland exceeded 500 basis points in late September this year, the Irish public finance outlook deteriorated significantly in the light of the innate ability of the Irish government to bailout Anglo-Irish Bank. Recently, the IMF estimated (link) that by 2012, Irish debt-to-GDP ratio would reach 67 percent, up from 12 percent in 2005.

A prudent reduction in debt-to-GDP would be accomplished only under restrictive fiscal policy based on the reduction in government spending and a permanent fiscal rule on budget surplus at a given target level. If Irish government set the surplus target at 3 percent of GDP in the next ten years, debt-to-GDP ratio could be considerably reduced within the range of Maastricht fiscal criteria.

The macroeconomic outlook in peripheral countries suffers from high fiscal expenditures and rigid labor market institutions. By 2012, Portugal's debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to reach nearly 85 percent of GDP. In addition to soaring public debt, the Mediterranean part of the EMU suffers heavily from high unemployment rate. Eurostat recently reported that, by October 2010, the unemployment rate in Spain reached an astonishing 20.7 percent. Double-digit unemployment rate in Spain, Greece (12.2 percent) and Portugal (11 percent) hamper the economic recovery since, in the past, these countries exercised expansionary fiscal policy and the policy of automatic stabilizers to mitigate the effects of high unemployment on aggregate consumption decline. In the aftermath of financial crisis, these countries experienced recessionary output gap in which economic contraction is marred by unchanged inflationary pressures.

Since EMU countries withheld domestic currencies and adhered the adoption of the Euro, the macroeconomic adjustment to the recovery is possible only by a prudent fiscal policy. High unemployment rates and a persistent divergence of economic policies in EMU countries could substantially increase discretionary fiscal policies that would eventually result in the serious possibility of country default. The economic crisis in Greece resulted in 11 percent cumulative GDP decline between 2010 and 2012. In the same period, government net debt is expected to reach the 120 percent of GDP thresold. A divergence between Member States towards highly discretionary fiscal policy would probably alleviate the persistence of high unemployment but at the expense of bold increase in the rate of inflation as well as in the persistence of debt-to-GDP ratio and large government imbalances. Hence, the survival of the Eurozone would depend on the ability of EU Member States to adjust government balance by reducing fiscal expenditure and adopt the fiscal rule to pursue fiscal surplus in the coming years as to reduce the stock of public debt.

Even though a common fiscal policy could accomplish the goals of stabilization policy, the mitigation of fiscal asymmetries would be easily accomplished by labor market integration. A currency union between different countries implies integrated and assimilated labor markets under relatively homogenous preferences. It would be nearly impossible to envision the European Monetary Union without these key macroeconomic features.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bush tax cuts and economic growth

In 2001 and 2003, former U.S president George W. Bush signed Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act (EGTRAA) and Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (JGTRAA). EGTRAA reduced personal income tax rates, increased child tax credit, decreased estate tax and introduced a various range of tax-favored retirement savings plans. In 2003 when EGTRAA was enacted, the Congress cut the top capital gains tax rate from 20 percent to 15 percent while the individual dividend tax rate was reduced from 35 percent to 15 percent.

Bush tax cuts are set to expire in 2011. Hence, a bold increase in marginal tax rates is expected. David Leonhardt recently asked whether the Bush tax cuts were good for economic growth amid the fact that under Bush administration, the U.S economic growth was the lowest since the World War II. Eight years of Bush administration were known for the largest expansion of federal government spending compared to the six preceding presidents. In eight years, President Bush increased discretionary federal outlays by 104 percent compared to 11 percent increase under President Clinton.

Under Bush tax cuts, the reduction in personal income tax rates was imposed across all income brackets. Tax Policy Center estimated that extending Bush tax cuts in 2011 would increase the after-tax income across all income quintiles but it differed substantially. For instance, the increase in after-tax income in the lowest quintile would represent 12.19 percent of the increase in after-tax income of the highest quintile. The average federal tax rate would decrease by 2.5 percentage points. The reduction in average federal tax rate would be the most significant for top 1 percent and 0.1 percent cash income percentile, -3.8 percentage points and -4.4 percentage points respectively. Assuming the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the average federal tax rate, which includes indvidual income tax rate, corporate income tax rate, social security, Medicare and estate tax, would be substantially lower compared to Obama Administration's FY2011 Budget Proposal. The increase in the average federal tax rate would be roughly proportional across the cash income distribution. The federal tax rate would increase by 1 percentage point for the lowest quintile and 3.1 percentage point for the top quintile. The federal tax rate would for earners in top 1 percent of cash income distribution would increase by 4.2 percentage point. The chart shows the distribution of average effective tax rates and current law and current policy of Bush tax cuts not assumed to expire in 2011. The current proposal would increase the effective tax rate across all income quintiles. The highest increase (3.3 percentage points) would hit the earners in top 20 percent of income distribution.

Effective Tax Rates: A Comparison
Source: Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Microsimulation Model

The expiration of the Bush tax cuts would substantially increase the effective tax burden across the cash income distribution. Recently, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that letting the Bush tax cuts expire would create a net gain of $22 billion in economic activity. Hence, allowing high-income tax cuts expire would, on impact, result in a net gain of $42 billion in economic activity which is about five times the economic stimulus from extending high-income tax cuts.

The years of the Bush administration were earmarked by the escalation of federal government spending both in absolute and relative terms. The growth in federal government spending was driven mostly by discretionary defense spending while non-discretionary federal outlays increased as well. Since 2001, the federal government spending in the Bush administration increased by 28.8 percent with a 35.7 percent growth in non-defense discretionary spending. The growth of the federal government under Bush administration was the highest since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. The Independent Institute compared the growth of federal government spending from Lyndon B. Johnson onwards.

Letting the Bush tax cuts expire would probably not impose a negative effect on small businesses since less than 2 percent of tax returns in the top 2 income brackets are filed by taxpayers reporting small business. William Gale contends that the Bush tax cuts significantly raised the government debt. The economic consequences of the 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were detrimental. William Nordhaus estimated that the total cost of war in Iraq between 2003 and 2012 could exceed $1 trillion in 2002 dollars considering unfavorable and protracted cost scenario. To a large extent, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have added substantially to the increase in government spending. However, even after excluding defense outlays from the spending structure, the increase in non-defense discretionary spending exceeded the growth of the federal government spending by 5.6 percentage points. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of federal subsidy programs increased from 1,425 to 1,804 - a 26 percent increase compared to 21 percent increase during Clinton years.

The Bush tax cuts failed to result in a Laffer curve effect mostly because they were implemented alongside a bold and significant increase in federal government spending. Had a substantial reduction in government spending been enforced, the tax cuts would not place should an enormous weight in the growth of federal debt. Higher federal debt would inevitably ponder the structural fiscal imbalance. Since debt interest payments would increase, a combination of tax cuts and spending growth would stimulate investment demand, creating an upward pressure on interest rates, especially during the economic recovery when the difference between potential output and real output is expected to diminish.

Critics of the Bush tax cuts often claim that cuts amassed a growing fiscal deficit. However, in 2007, the fiscal deficit stood at 1.2 percent of the U.S GDP while in 2009, the deficit increased to 9.9 percent of the GDP as a result of $787 billion fiscal stimulus from Obama Administration. Since tax cuts were enacted in 2001 and 2003 respectively, something else is to blame for the deficit.

U.S Federal Debt: Long-Term Forecast
Source: Office of Budget and Management; author's own estimate

The main premise of the economic policy of the Bush administration had been a significant increase in federal government spending. Spending policies were mostly aimed at covering the growing cost of the Iraqi war. In addition, domestic non-defense outlays on social security and domestic priorities grew significantly, creating an upward pressue on federal debt. The growth of entitlments such as Social Security and Medicare poses a serious long-term risk regarding the sustainability of federal government spending. In the upper chart built a simple forecasting framework to estimate the long-run level of U.S federal government debt as a percent of the GDP. Surprisingly, time trend accounts for 85 percent of the variability of the share of federal debt in the GDP. A more robust framework would include the lagged dependent variable and several regressors in the set of explanatory variables to increase the share of variance explained by independent effects of regressors. The results indicate that by 2020, the federal debt could easily reach the 90 percent thresold.

The growing stock of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are central to understanding the looming pressure on federal budget to tackle the challenges of ageing population and demand for health care. The tax cuts imposed by the Bush administration reduced average federal tax rates across quintiles in cash income distribution. However, tax cuts were no supplemented by the reduction in federal government spending. Consequently, the growth of federal government spending increased future interest debt payments and failed to take into account the long-term pressure of Medicare and Social Security on federal budget set. Extending the Bush tax cuts would be superior to letting them expire. But lowering tax burden should nevertheless be comprehended by the reduction in federal government spending.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Public pension crisis in OECD countries

The central aim of my bachelor's thesis is to demonstrate the unsustainability of public pension system in OECD countries in the longer run through the lens of a rigorous theoretical and empirical analysis.

The origins of contemporary public pension schemes date back to 19th century when Bismarckian Germany in 1881 first adopted a universal old-age public pension system based on pay-as-you-go (PAYG) funding principle. The principle itself captures full advantages of high (stationary) population growth rate. In the simplest form, PAYG pension scheme is based on the notion of generational solidarity upon which current generations pay mandatory social security contribution into the public scheme. Aggregate contributions are then paid out to current retirees. The cycle is then expanded through generations. However, PAYG funding scheme is sustainable as long as the population growth is high and above the marginal productivity of the capital. Back in 19th century, public pension schemes were adopted under unrealistic assumptions about future population prospects. In 19th century, advanced countries experienced high population growth rate, high fertility rate and an extremely low share of dependent old population that was receiving universal old-age support from PAYG pension schemes. These set of assumptions was crucial to the stability of government-provided old-age support embodied in the public pension schemes.

The sustainability of PAYG pension system requires the equivalence of population growth rate and real interest rate. In the early 20th century, the advanced world shifted towards aging population, declining fertility rates and lower labor market entry rate. In broad terms, a growing old-age dependency ratio led to the pure disequilbrium effects. In a theoretical framework, I re-examined the neoclassical framework of lifecycle hypotheses embodied in Samuelson and Cass-Yaari models of life-cycle utility maximization. The lifecycle hypothesis is based upon the assumption of the three-period model where individuals maximize the consumption in the course of a lifetime. In the first period, individuals do not discount the future consumption since, in this period, individuals acquire the human capital. In the second period individuals enter the working age and discount the future consumption. Hence, in the third period, individuals retire consume the output produced in the working-age period. Since future discounting is compounded, the lifetime consumption increases geometrically. In purely analytical terms, the individuals maximize the utility of consumption through time preference rate.

Considering the abovementioned equivalence between population growth rate and real interest rate, the stability of the equilibria requires the period discount rate to equal the population growth rate. If population growth rate decreases, the stability of the equilibria requires that individuals decrease the future discount rate by the same rate to keep the PAYG pension system within the theoretical limit. The rigorous theoretical formulation of the neoclassical model of lifetime consumption, which essentially captures the necessary conditions for equilibrium stability of public pension schemes, had been put forth by Paul A. Samuelson in his seminal contribution to the theoretical foundations of stationary "PAYG" public pension scheme .

In the course of the last decades, OECD countries have experienced a significant drop in fertility rates, population growth and, under the political climate of social democracy, a widespread adoption of early retirement schemes and generous social security benefits. In addition, labor market exit age dropped significantly, initiating a trend towards the unprecendent growth of generational indebtedness.

The OECD estimated that between 2000 and 2050, old-age dependency ratio is forecast to increase to the largest extent in Japan (193 percent), Spain (136 percent), Portugal and Greece (135 percent). The astonishing increase in the estimated old-age dependency ratio directly reflects the declining fertility rate in OECD countries from 1960s onwards. I estimated the ratio of fertility rate between 1960-1970 and 2000-2006 for OECD countries at around 2, which means that average fertility rate between 1960-1970 was twice the fertility rate between 2000-2006. The highest fertility ratios were found in Spain (2.23), Italy (1.96), Ireland (2.00) while the lowest ratios were found in Denmark (1.37), Netherlands (1.72) and the United States (1.46).

High and stable effective retirement age is the main assumption underlying the stationary stability of PAYG pension system. In the 20th and 21st century, OECD countries have experienced an unprecendent decline in effective retirement age. Blöndal and Scarpetta (2002) estimated the decline in labor market exit age for OECD countries between 1960 and 1995. The female labor market exit age had declined significantly in Ireland (10.7 years), Spain (9.1 years) and Norway (8.8 years). Male labor market exit age exerted persistent decline in all developed OECD countries except for Iceland. The exit age declined significantly in the Netherlands (7.3 years) and Spain (6.5 years).

In a large part, declining labor market exit age has confluenced the rapid growth of unemployment and disability benefits and early retirement incentives from the second half of the 20th century onwards. As the OECD correctly contemplated, in a number of countries, disability pensions and unemployment benefits can be used as de facto early retirement schemes. In a large part, widespread growth of early retirement schemes and implicit incentives for moral hazard in retiring too early via unemployment and disability schemes is held responsible by generous welfare states in the aftermath of the World War II.

When I examined various features affecting early retirement choices, I came across an interesting finding. I regressed labor market exit age and marginal tax rate in a cross section of 23 OECD countries in 2007. I estimated the relationship between exit age and marginal tax rate using a classical OLS linear regression model. The estimate suggests that, holding all other factors constant, if marginal tax rate increases by 1 percentage point, average labor market exit age decreases by 1.88 months. Surprisingly, 51.74 percent of sample variation is explained by marginal tax rate alone. The sample constant is statistically significant, suggesting that if the hypothetical marginal tax rate were zero, the average labor market exit age in randomly chosen country from OECD sample would be 69.65 years. The sample constant is consistent with a prior theoretical expectations since it concurs with the "substitution effect" hypothesis that higher marginal tax rate leads to lower labor supply and fewer working hours.

The cost of early retirement in OECD countries
Source: T.T. Herbertsson & J.M. Orszag, The Cost of Early Retirement in OECD, 2001. OECD, Pensions at Glance, 2009.

Fiscal imbalances arising from unsustainable PAYG public pension systems in OECD countries cannot be assessed without a sufficient estimate of economic costs of unfunded pension liabilities. I approximated the cost of early retirement using Auerbach-Kotlikoff-Gokhale (1999) methodology that directly estimates the size of generational imbalances created by public social security systems. Large and rapidly unsustainable net pension liabilities occured in late 1980s. Van den Noord and Herd (1993) estimated the size of net pension liabilities in seven major OECD countries. The results suggest that continental European countries have had the largest net pension liabilities in terms of GDP. The size of pension liabilities in France and Italy had been about 2.5 times the size of their respective GDPs and twice the stock of the public debt.

Gokhale (2008) directly estimated fiscal imbalances arising from unfunded pension liabilities to current and prospective generations. The size of generational fiscal imbalance, as a share of the GDP, is extremely large and rapidly unsustainable in all OECD countries. In fact, the size of the imbalance is the most severe in Greece (875 percent of the GDP), France, Finland and the Netherlands (500 percent of the GDP) while it is more than twice the size of the GDP in all OECD countries except for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Fiscal imbalance in OECD countries
Source: J. Gokhale, Measuring Unfunded Obligations of European Countries, 2009.

I built the econometric model of public pension expenditure for a cross section of 23 OECD countries in 2007 to assess which variables might explained the cross-country variation in public pension expenditures. I've been aware of the possible drawbacks of choosing a cross-section model since it might be vulnerable to specification errors and the unbiasedness of regression coefficients. To account for possible specification bias, I conducted Kolmogorov-Smirnov, Shapiro-Wilk and Jarque-Bera normality tests. By performing normality tests, I have examined whether the normality assumption of normally distributed error terms is valid in the studied sample of 23 OECD countries considering error terms as identically and independently distributed.

In the set of explanatory variables that might yield consistent and robust estimates of regression coefficients I chose 10 various demographic, economic and institutional independent variables. Apart from demographic and economic variables, institutional variables are dichotomous since the institutional features can be captured by binary modes of choice. The dependent variable is the size of public pension expenditures in the share of the GDP.

The results suggest that public pension expenditures are positively correlated with the share of population aged 65 and older (0.746**), difference in life expectancy after age 65 between 1960 and 2005 (0.477*) and dichotomous variable for continental European countries (0.697**) where * and ** indicate the statistical significant of the sample correlation coefficient at the 5% and 1% level. The estimates suggests that the probability of higher pension expenditures in the share of the GDP is likely to occur in a continental European country known for a relatively large share of older population and a high difference in life expectancy after age 65 between 1960 and the present. On the other hand, public pension expenditures are negatively correlated with average effective retirement age (-0.475**), private pension funds as a share of GDP (-0.658**), labor market exit age (-0.523**), dichotmous variable for Anglo-Saxon countries (-0.544**) and a dichotomous variable for private pension system (-0.672**), where ** denotes the statistical significant of the sample correlation coefficient at the 1% level. Again, the estimates suggest that the probability of lower pension expenditure is likely to occur if a randomly chosen country from the OECD sample is Anglo-Saxon and has a high effective retirement age, large private pension funds as a share of the GDP, high labor market exit age and a mandatory private pension system. The coefficients suggest that in repeated sampling, the estimated sample correlation coefficient will include the true or correct population value in 99 percent of cases.

I conducted the econometric model which consisted of 8 regression specifications. I chose double-logarithmic model which yields direct elasticities as regression coefficients. However, I added two exceptions. In regression specifications 5 and 6, I chose a mixed specification mostly due to the inclusion of private pension funds (assets) variable in the regression specification. Unfortunately, but the share of private pension funds in Greece in 2007 equals 0 percent of the GDP which does not enable the researcher to apply double-logarithmic model as the basis of regression specification.

The estimates suggest that the share of population aged 65 and older is statistically singificantly positively related to the share of public pension expenditures in the GDP. Hence, the elasticity of public pension expenditures with respect to effective retirement age ranges from -1.465 to -4.935, suggesting that an increase in effective retirement age by an additional year leads to per unit increase in public pension expenditures by more than a unit increase in the share of the GDP. The coefficient of private pension funds is highly statistically significant. The elasticity of public pension expenditures with respect to private pension funds (as a share of the GDP) ranges from -0.34 to -0.38 and is statistically significant at the 1% level. The elasticity suggests that a 10 percentage point increase in the share of private pension funds reduces the share of public pension expenditures in the GDP, on impact, by 3.4-3.8 percent, holding all other factors constant. In addition, the estimates of coefficients for dichotomous variables suggest the following: the probability of higher public pension expenditures (as a share of GDP) is likely to occur in continental European countries with mandatory private pension system. Five estimates of dichotomous coefficients are statistically significant at the less than 10% level.

The significance of dichotomous (dummy) coefficients has been tested by beta coefficient analysis to rank the magnitudes of separate effects of explanatory variables on public pension expenditures as dependent variable. The results suggest that continental European countries are significantly more likely to face higher public pension spending in the share of GDP compared to Anglo-Saxon countries.

Earlier I mentioned the necessity of normality assumption in yielding robust, consistent and unbiased estimates of regression coefficients. The assumption has been questioned by conducting Kolmogorov-Smirnov test (K-S), Jarque-Bera test (J-B) and Shapiro-Wilk (S-W) normality test. The aim of the testing the normality assumption is to observe whether error terms distribute normally so that estimated test statistics, standard errors and confidence intervals are reliable. In setting test statistic, I set the normality assumption as null hypothesis. The results from K-S, J-B and S-W tests show that the null hypothesis cannot be rejected at 5% level, suggesting that the normality assumption is valid in the studied sample. Hence, test statistics, standard errors and confidence intervals are both valid and reliable.

The meaningful question to evaluate the prospects of the coming public pension crisis is how to reverse the growth of fiscal imbalances and reform public pension system as to avoid erratic generational indebtedness. Aging population and the growth of old-age dependency ratio trigger an enormous future burden on public finances in OECD countries. Lower fertility rate and population growth shall place an incurable burden on the stability of PAYG public pension systems. The estimates suggest that life-expectancy after the age of 65 is likely to increase by 2050 and gradually approach the age of 90 for both male and female. Assuming the effective retirement age is 65, the remaining life expectancy is 25 years or almost one-third of the average lifetime. As Alemayehu and Warner (2004) suggest: "Old-age health care costs thus will impose increasingly severe pressure on private finances and government coffers. Indeed, applying our age-specific estimates to the age distribution anticipated for the year 2030, we find that if nothing is done to alter current patterns of health care, per capita health care expenditures will rise by one-fifth due to population aging alone."

The long-term pension reform that aging societies of the West should undertake is a complementary measures of three key policy features of the reform.

First, the transition to fully-funded retirement savings accounts is the only viable and sound pension reform that can alleviate the damage generated by the growing fiscal imbalances. The theoretical foundation of the transition from public pension systems to fully-funded pension system has been laid down by Feldstein and Liebman (2001). The authors derived an algebraic solution which suggests that keeping a PAYG public pension system does not attenuate the persistence of a growing demographic pressure on the stability of public pension system. As I discussed earlier, PAYG system crucially depends on three key assumptions: high fertility rate, very low share of population older 65+ and high population growth. These assumptions are incompatible with actual demographic parameters and, hence, OECD countries should undertake a drastic transition towards fully-funded pension systems based on individual savings accounts. Otherwise, the growing demographic pressure will inevitably result in the exponential growth of generational debt, creating an enormous deadweight loss for current and prospective generations.

Fully-funded pension system is based on the premise of investing pension contributions into the capital market, earning a compound interest over time. The stock of individual's lifetime earnings is paid in the form of annuities upon individual's withdrawal from the labor market. In addition, there is a growing disparity between the implicit return of PAYG public pension system and real rate of return in the capital market. Under realistic assumptions, such as that the marginal product of capital (MPK) is below the welfare-maximizing level and the real rate of return exceeds the implicit return from PAYG system, fully-funded pension system would not create a deadweight consumption loss to the working-age population. In fact, Feldstein and Liebman (2001) derived an analytic solution for the transition to fully-funded pension system in which the transition induces a short-term consumption loss in the next period while, at the same time, it creates a geometrically-growing future consumption for both retired and working-age population.

The only remaining question is whether the real rate of return would compensate the consumption loss of working-age population and, hence, increase the stock of future consumption to all generations. According to Feldstein and Liebman (2001), assuming 6.5 percent inflation-adjusted rate of return, the payroll cost of fully-funded pension system would represent only 27 percent of the payroll cost incured under PAYG public pension system. Tax rate, required to bear the cost of current stock of pension liabilities is 12.4 percent respectively.

According to Congressional Budget Office, the average real rate of return for large-company stocks between 1926 and 2000 is 7.7 percent, 9.0 percent of small-company stocks and 2.2 percent for long-term Treasury bonds. Feldstein (1997) estimated that PAYG implicit rate of return is 2.6 percent.

Assume an individual wants to maximize the lifetime earnings in the capital market. An individual is offered 2.6 percent implicit return from PAYG system. The individual enters the labor market at certain age, say 25, and intends to retire upon the age of 65. Assume he invests $10.000 annually in the capital market to create retirement annuities upon labor market withdrawal. Assuming the implicit rate of return (2.6 percent), the stock of overall annuity would be 10 times the initial investment in 90 years. Assuming the average long-run real rate of return from large-company stocks (7.7 percent), the the overall annuity would be 10 times the initial stock of investment in 31 years. Therefore, the individual would reach the desired level of lifetime earnings at the age of 56 or 9 years before the targeted retirement age.

I assumed the distribution of lifetime investment portfolio is weighted average of availible asset types: large-company stocks (33 percent), small-company stocks (19 percent), long-term corporate bonds (20 percent), long-term Treasury bonds (20 percent) and 3-month Treasury bills (8 percent). According to the average annual real rates of return in the United States (1926-2000), I calculated the weighted average real rate of return (5.247 percent). Investing $10.000 annually at the age of 25 would buy $100.000 annuity at 5.247 real rate of return in 45 years (the age of 70) compared to 90 years (the age of 115) under the PAYG implicit rate of return (2.6 percent). Of course, the time to buy the annuity would shift alongside the changing composition of portfolio.

In addition, OECD countries should immediately increase the effective retirement age. I believe the solution suggested by Gary Becker is both meaningful but sustainable in reversing the growth of generational debt. Becker (2010) suggested "One simple and attractive rule would be to raise retirement age by an amount that makes the ratio of years spent in retirement to years spent working equal to the ratio that existed at the beginning of the social security system."

When President Roosevelt signed the notorious Social Security Act in 1935, the normal retirement age was 65. However, life expectancy after the age of 65 was significantly lower than is today. In 1940, average life expectancy after 65 in the U.S was 13.7 years. In 2006, it stood at 18.6 years, according to OECD. In 1935, the average life expectancy at birth in the United States was 61.7 years. We assume that individuals in 1935 worked for 35 years and spent 12 years in retirement. The ratio is thus 0.4 (12/ 35=0.34). Today, if individuals retire at the age of 65, they can expect further 18.6 years in retirement. To equalize the ratio to the 1935 level, (18.6/x=0.34), individuals should spend 54.7 years working. The estimate time is an equivalent measure of years required to spend working if PAYG public pension system is left intact. Assuming the individuals enter the labor market at the age of 25, then the expected effective retirement age is the age of 80.

In the long run, PAYG public pension system is unsustainable since demographic parameters do not suffice the assumptions under which the PAYG system is possible without distortions of labor supply incentives. The future of OECD countries will be marked by aging population, lower fertility rates and a growing demographic pressure on public finances. Without bold and decisive pension reform, OECD countries will experience increasing pension deficits and, hence, an explosive growth of generational indebtedness.

Parametric pension reforms are not a substitute for the postponement of paradigmatic pension reform. Thus, implementing the transition to fully-funded pension system essentially requires higher effective retirement age. A comprehensive pension reform cannot be made possible without these measures. At last, but not least, the major challenge in the systematic pension reform in OECD countries to address the burden of global aging, is whether political courage will withstand the pressure of interest groups to maintain the status quo of early retirement incentives. Nonetheless, eliminating early retirement incentives is the essential step towards creating retirement system without perverse incentives to retire too early. Unless political leaders encourage a transition to fully-funded pension system, OECD countries will be unable to withstand the deadly consequences of an enormous generational indebtedness.

The economic future of Ireland

The economic and financial crisis of 2008/2009 hit Ireland heavily. The asset price bubble and the subsequent deflation have added to the uncertain macroeconomic outlook. How did the country went from the times of the "Irish miracle" to the prolonged economic slowdown? Following the beginning of the 2008/2009 economic and financial crisis, Ireland was hit by an unprecedent economic slowdown. In 2008, the GDP declined by 3.0 percent on the annual basis. In 2009, the GDP further declined by 7.1 percent in real terms. The unemployment rate increased to almost 12 percent.

Prior to the outburst of the economic crisis, Ireland enjoyed stable and predictable levels of public debt. In 2007, the country was known for having stabilised the public debt at 25 percent of the GDP - the lowest level of any Western European country. In 2009, the debt-to-GDP ratio increased to 64 percent of the GDP. Once known as the sick man of Europe, Ireland's economic policymakers have implemented a set of fiscal policy measures aimed to boost the long-term economic growth and abolish the economic policy based on the state intervention, high tax rates on labor and capital and export-led growth.

Eversince the 1960, Ireland pursued a soft version of industrial policy targeted at the promotion of inward foreign direct investment and the education of highly skilled workers. In addition, Ireland reduced the corporate income tax rate to 12.5 percent and provided a thorough technical assistance and to multinational companies located in Ireland. Indeed, U.S. multinationals such as Microsoft, Dell and Intel were encouraged to locate in Ireland mainly because of its geographic proximity to key European markets, skilled English-speaking workforce, membership in the EU, relative low wage level and favorable corporate taxation.

In early 1990s, the results of a precise set of economic policies were spectacular. By the end of 2006, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.6 percent from 18 percent in early 1980s. Between 1992 and 2005, Irish GDP increased by an average of 6.9 percent while the investment grew by 8.6 percent on the annual basis. The largest contribution to GDP growth was domestic demand (5.3 percentage point). Hence, Ireland's public finance enjoyed a favorable outlook mainly due to the rapid decline of debt-to-GDP ratio from 1980s onwards, and from a relatively low demographic pressure on the budgetary entitlements.

During the Irish boom, Irish banking and financial sector were highly dependant on the wholesale funding. Due to largely positive macroeconomic outlook from 1990 onwards, Irish banking sector received high and consistent credit ratings from agencies such as Moody, S&P and Fitch. In turn, the reliance on fragile wholesale funding resulted in overleveraged balance sheets. After the failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the short-term outlook on Irish banking sector signalled a significant rise in credit-default swaps which raised concerns over the ability of banks to provide the wholesale funding for a mountain of short-term debt liabilities. And since the overleveraged balance sheets downgraded the outlook on Irish banking sector, the institutional investors demanded higher risk premium to extend the funding channel to the Irish banks.

The Directorate Generale for Economic and Financial Affairs of the European Commission downgraded the macroeconomic forecast of Irish GDP growth. By the end of 2009, the economic activity plummeted by 7.1 percent. The housing market crash was largely a result of the asset price bubble channeled through the overinvestment in the construction sector which represented 12 percent of the GDP. Nothing could explain the deflationary pressures in the aftermath of the financial crisis than excessive housing prices during the pre-crisis Irish economic boom. After 2008, Ireland's household savings rate increased to the level above 10 percent which is a result of the adjustment in the household balance sheet. In fact, between 2001 and 2007, the share of household debt in the GDP nearly doubled.

Meanwhile, the mountain of liabilities in the Irish banking and financial sector raised the concern over its solvency. The Irish Government immediately facilitated a bailout plan for the troubled banking sector. Consequently, the large budget deficit resulted in excessive debt-to-GDP ratio which grew by 39 percentage points between 2007 and 2009. In the annual European Economic Forecast (Spring, 2010), the European Commission estimated that by the end of 2011, the debt-to-GDP ratio could reach as high as 87.3 percent. while the cyclically-adjusted government balance is estimated to increase up to -10.2 percent of the GDP. The contraction of domestic demand which, by all measures, is the main engine of Ireland's economic growth led to a rapid increase in the unemployment rate which increase from 6.3 percent in 2008 to 11.9 percent in 2009. By 2011, the European Commission forecast that the unemployment rate is expected to further increase by 1.5 percentage point compared to 2009. In World Economic Outlook, the IMF estimated that the unemployment rate in Ireland would increase by 1.1 percentage point by the end of 2011. In 2009, Ireland experienced net outward migration for the first time since 1960s in the wake of expected 13.8 percent unemployment rate in 2010.

The macroeconomic forecast for 2011 is favorable. The European Commission upgraded GDP growth estimate to 3 percent. Meanwhile, the investment is expected to increase for the first time since the 60 percent cumulative decline of the construction sector. The positive contribution of net exports to the gradual narrowing of the current account deficit could be an important measure to alleviate the rising pressure over debt-to-GDP ratio. On the other hand, Ireland's Department of Finance revised the macroeconomic forecasts and estimated that by the end of this year, the GDP would grow by 1 percent on the annual basis.

The essential measure of Irish economic recovery is the retrenchment of wage rates in the public sector and the adjustment of public sector wages to the cyclical dynamics of economic activity to prevent the possibility of excessive inflationary pressures in the course of economic recovery. Current measures of retrenching public sector wages successfully anchored the inflationary expectations. According to the IMF, the annual inflation rate is estimated to peak at nearly 2 percent by the end of 2015. The falling wage rates in the private sector could induce the reallocation of resources in the tradeable sector, further adding to the contribution of net external trade to the GDP growth.

The key measures to alleviate the consequences of economic and financial crisis in both real and financial sector are the immediate narrowing of Ireland's excessive budget deficit and public debt in the share of GDP. High public debt is mainly the result of government capital injection into Anglo-Irish Bank which represents about 2 percentage points of net deficit increase in 2010. The entire consolidation package represents 2.5 percent of the GDP.

Deutsche Bank recently published Public Debt in 2020 and estimated the levels of public debt by the end of that year for both advanced and emerging-market economies. The analysis by Deutsche Bank predicted the effect of a combined negative shock in real interest rate, primary government balance and real GDP growth. If the combined shock of all three variables were to change by about one-fourth standard deviation from the estimated growth rate, the public debt in 2020 would reach 154 percent of the GDP. If the combined shock of all three variables increased by one-half standard deviation from the baseline estimates, the public debt in 2020 would increase to 197 percent of the GDP. The difference in the estimated increase is due to higher intensity of the combined shock. In addition, to restore the debt-to-GDP ratio to pre-crisis level, Ireland would be required to increase the primary government balance to 6 percent of the GDP.

Given the enormous magnitude and burden of public debt and overleveraged corporate and financial sector, the immediate facilitation of measures to alleviate the public indebtedness is necessary. Ireland's economic future is constrained by the persistence of budget deficit which adds to the future burden of public debt. Prudent efforts to reduce the burden of both debt and deficit are of the essential importance. Nevertheless, Irish policymakers should not neglect the economic policies that created the Irish miracle as well as the policy errors that caused the deepest economic decline in Western Europe during the 2008/2009 economic crisis.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Economic growth and democratic institutions

Professor William Easterly recently presented (link) an intriguing empirical evidence on the relationship between nation's politics and economic growth. In particular, professor Easterly presented data on long-run economic growth and the scope of democracy for a majority of countries between 1960 and 2008. Professor Easterly identified that the highest-growing countries in the world were those with autocratic political regimes. Among ten highest-growing economies between 1960 and 2008, all of them, except for Cyprus, have been characterized by hybrid and autocratic political regimes. On the other hand, ten countries with the lowest growth rates of real GDP per capita between 1960 and 2008 were equally known for authocratic political systems or flawed democracies.

Presumably, the evidence bodes against the recent prediction by Dani Rodrik that authoritarian political regimes ultimately create economic systems vulnerable to external shocks and structural change, thus hampering the prospects of structural change as a neccessary condition for economic development.

To estimate the general pattern of the relationship between economic growth and the nature of political system, I reviewed real per capita GDP growth rates between 1970 and 2007 for a group of 134 countries across the broad spectrum of different levels of GDP per capita. Based on Summers-Heston dataset of real GDP per capita growth rates (link) between the stated time period, I estimated average rates of growth of GDP per capita and collected data from Economist Intelligence Unit on the level of democracy across the world in 2008 (link). The intuition behind this approach is the identification of endogenous and casual direction between the two variables. From the theoretical perspective, it is nonetheless difficult to establish a relationship between the form of government and long-run economic growth. There are at least two possible directions of casuality.

First, the underlying assumption of the relationship could be that systemic changes in political environment are essential to the structural change and, hence, are the main mechanism behind the enforcement of constitutional changes and public policies. The assertion of the underlying theory is that autocratic and authoritarian political system hinder structural changes and the establishment of institutions and democratic governance that is crucial for economic growth. This particular view has been asserted by Dani Rodrik (link), Andrei Shleifer, Florencio Lopez de Silanes and Rafael La Porta (link). While Dani Rodrik's perspective heavily relied on the importance of institutions for long-run economic growth, Shleifer, Lopez de Silanes & La Porta captured the essence of economic development in the legal origins of nations.

Second, the casuality in economic growth and political system could also stem in the opposite direction. The basic underlying assumption could be that higher rates of economic growth encourage systemic changes in the political system and enable the adoption of democratic institutions. The notion of economic growth as the engine of democratic changes has deserved a strong empirical support.

Robert Barro's analysis of long-run economic growth across the world (link) has examined the relationship between the level of democracy and long-run economic growth rate. The empirical evidence suggests a non-linear, inverted-U relationship between democracy and 10-year growth residuals, both coefficients in partial quadratic equation and the partial correlation coefficient being statistically significantly different from zero.

The notion would suggest that as countries depart from a low level of real GDP per capita, the adoption of democratic institutions accelerates economic growth but only up to some point. After the tipping point, the economic outcome of further democratization results in lower growth of real GDP per capita, partly because a high level of democracy tends to promote public policies that diminish growth prospects such as higher tax rates on labor and capital and the redistribution of income, all of which exert a somewhat negative effect on productivity growth and incentives for labor supply and investment.

The first table portrays the distribution of real per capita GDP growth rates across 134 countries between 1970 and 2007. The distributive pattern resembles the properties of normal distribution curves. In fact, the estimated coefficients of skewness and kurtosis suggest a rather very mild departure from the assumption of normality which is of the high importance, especially in testing hypotheses about the effects of explanatory variables on long-run growth dynamics. The normality assumption of normally distributed errors was not tested via normality tests.

Ten highest growing countries in terms of real GDP per capita between 1970 and 2007 are Equatorial Guinea (8.39 percent), Taiwan (5.98 percent), China (5.97 percent), St. Kitts & Nevis (5.49 percent), Botswana (5.45 percent), Bhutan (5.38 percent), Maldives (5.38 percent), Hong Kong (5.37 percent), Macao (5.30 percent) and Singapore (5.29 percent). In real terms, the estimated average real per capita GDP growth rates suggest that it took only 13 years for Singapore's real GDP per capita to double and 21 years to triple. In China, where the estimated average growth rate exceeded Singapore's growth rate only by 0.69 percentage point, it took roughly 11 years for real GDP per capita to double and only 19 years to triple. In the lower tail of growth distribution are mostly countries from Sub-Saharan Africa such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Somalia, Central African Republic and Niger. Average real growth rates of GDP per capita of these countries were negative. The negative average real GDP per capita growth rate occured in 11 percent of country observations.

Distribution of economic growth across 134 countries between 1970 and 2007
Source: own estimate based on Summers-Heston dataset

The following graph illustrates the relationship between long-run average growth rates and the level of democracy in 2008 for the entire sample of 134 countries. The attempt to analyze the effect of democracy level on long-run economic growth is based on the notion that democratic institutions elevate economic growth in the longer run. The estimated slope coefficient (0.2277) suggest that a one-point increase in democracy index increases the average long-run per capita GDP growth rate by 0.2277 percentage point controlling for other factors.

Although the cross-country variation in the level of democracy explains only about 9 percent of growth rate variance, and even though the direct effect of democracy on economic growth seems minor and almost non-existent, the estimated sample regression coefficient is statistically significant at 5 percent level. It suggests that the effect of democracy on growth is persistant and evident in the particular sample.

Democracy and average long-run growth rates in a sample of 134 countries
Source: own estimates

Hence, to account for different degree of variation in average real GDP per capita growth rates, I divided the sample into quartiles. The goal of the pursued empirical strategy is to see whether the difference in variance composition between countries with similar growth rates persists. I divided the total sample into four groups: high growth performers (average growth rate higher than 3 percent) moderate growth countries (average growth rate below 3 percent and above 2.05 percent) and low growth countries (average growth rate below 1.09 percent). The next graph shows the relationship between democracy and average real GDP per capita growth rate in high-growth countries between 1970 and 2007. The parameters suggests a different relationship. The estimated slope coefficient is negative (-0.1638), suggesting that a one point increase in democracy index decreases the average real GDP per capita growth rate by about 0.1638 percentage point.

The share of variance explained by the democracy variable increased by 22.5 percent. In the statistical sense, the effect of democracy on economic growth in high-growth countries has been more powerful compared to the total sample. The estimated slope coefficient is statistically significant at 5 percent level. I also estimated beta coefficient (-0.338) to account for the effects of standard deviation increase on the average growth rate in real GDP per capita. The estimated beta coefficient suggests that a one standard deviation increase in democracy level (2.4 points) would, on impact, decrease the average real GDP per capita growth rate by 0.338 standard deviation or 0.394 percentage point in real terms.

From a theoretical perspective, the enforcement of democratic policies in high-growth countries would have a minor negative effect on economic growth, holding all other factors constant. Surprisingly, authortarian regimes previal in 44 percent of countries in the high-growth sample. Thus, the hypothetically negative effect of democracy on economic growth is evident but it is far from significantly negative.

Democracy and average long-run growth rates in high-growth countries
Source: own estimates based on Summers-Heston and EIU datasets

The next graph portrays the relationship between democracy and average real GDP per capita growth rates in low-growth countries. Contrary to the sample estimate in high-growth country group, the effect of democracy on real GDP per capita growth rate is positive and persistent. The correlation coefficient is positive and moderate (0.458) and statistically significant at 1 percent level. The beta coefficient (0.458) from the regression specification suggests that a one standard deviation increase in democracy level (cca. 1.497 points) would raise the average real GDP per capita growth rate on impact by 0.458 standard deviation or 0.382 percentage point, ceteris paribus. In fact, the variability in level of democracy explains 21.1 percent of the variance of average per capita GDP real growth rates. The estimated slope coefficient is statistically significant at 2.1 percent level and 0.6 percent level, suggesting a very low probability of rejecting the null hypothesis and a strong influence of democratic institutions on economic growth in the long run.

Democracy and average long-run growth rates in low-growth countries
Source: own estimate based on Summers-Heston and EIU datasets

In the next subsample, I jointly added high-growth and low-growth countries in the single sample and changed the casual direction. The underlying assumption is that democracy level is endogenously determined by the long-run average real GDP per capita growth rate. In real terms, I assumed that the public choice of political institutions across the world depend on the real GDP growth rate. Hence, I estimated the relationship by including the squared term in the regression equation. The estimated slope coefficients suggest a typical inverted-U relationship between real GDP per capita growth rate and the level of democracy. The real GDP per capita growth rate alone explains 30.6 percent of the cross-country variaton in the level of democracy. Intuitively, the results suggest that there exists an optimum level of real GDP per capita growth that maximizes the level of institutional democracy.

Differentiating the conditional expectation function of the level of democracy with respect to the real GDP per capita growth rate yields the partial derivate dy/dx = -(ß2/2ß3). Plugging the two coefficients in the partial derivate yields 3.65. Thus, the growth rate of real GDP per capita that maximizes the level of institutional democracy is 3.65 percent. Hence, both coefficients are statistically significant. The p-values are 0.000 suggesting a zero probability of rejecting a null hypothesis when it is, in fact, true - and a strong predictive influence of both variables on the expected level of democracy.

The effect of long-run economic growth on democratic institutions in high-growth and low-growth countries
Source: own estimates based on Summers-Heston and EIU datasets

Countries with the comparable growth rate are Iceland, Ireland, Trinidad & Tobago and Spain. Except for Trinidad & Tobago, none of these countries is either flawed democracy or an authoritarin political regime. Therefore, the expected level of democracy is low in countries where the average growth rate of GDP per capita is either very low or negative or very high.

Hypothetically, the conditional pattern of real per capita GDP growth supports the notion that the highest-growing countries in the 20th century such as Singapore, Taiwan and Botswana had a relatively low level of democracy and a significant degree of political authoritarianism. In addition, countries with the lowest growth rate of real GDP per capita such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia were also authoritarian political regimes. The predictive power of the regression equation is reasonably high since more than 30 percent of the variance of the level of democracy is explained by a non-linear shifts in the long-run average real GDP per capita growth rate.

Democracy is a controversial question of the modern theory of economic growth. Indeed, the empirical evidence suggests that the highest growth rates were achieved in those countries with a considerable degree of political dictatorship. However, the lowest long-run growth rates of real GDP per capita were achieved by countries in which political dictatorship prevails. The pattern suggest that the quality of institutions such as the rule of law, judicial independence and a constitutional democracy complement the significance of human capital which is the essential engine of long-run economic growth.

The most important growth engine of the highest growing countries such as East Asian tigers and Ireland has been the emphasize on human capital that resulted in a high level of knowledge intensity and high productivity growth rate. These countries were known for heavy doses of state interventionism aimed towards the implementation of industrial policy conducive to economic growth. However, the conclusion should be taken with caution. Political dictatorship or authoritarianism were detrimental to least-developed countries since it encouraged predatory political behavior and resulted in the political environment with a complete absence of the rule of law, judicial independence, protection of private property rights, institutional integrity and constitutional democracy.

The question which set of growth policies is essential to high long-run growth of real GDP per capita involves two answers. First, the primacy of institutional quality alongside the investment in human capital is by far the most important engine of long-run economic growth. Without first-class institutions and human capital, the vicious circle of poverty and social deprivation for less developed nations can be endless. And second, the components of constitutional democracy such as electoral rights and pluralism, good functioning of government, high level of political culture and civil liberties can deliberately increase the prospects of economic growth.

However, if the power of state is left unrestrained by the absence of the rule of law and a coherent set of checks and balances on the coercive strenght of redistributive interest groups, even a high level of democracy would not alleviate the persistence of poverty and weak structural indicators. On the contrary, it would only worsen the prospects of long-run economic growth.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Religion and economic growth

In the course of economic growth theory, the impact of religion on economic growth and GDP per capita has been largely neglected by the mainstream economic theory. Basically, there have been two major conceptual forces behind the demonstration of the effect of religiousness on economic growth. First, traditional theoretical approach to the analysis of economic growth embodied in the Solow approach emphasized the role of capital accumulation and technological progress in the growth of total factor productivity where the technological progress accounted for the unexplained and exogenous feature that drove the growth of total factor productivity.

Early analyses of economic growth and its main determinants heavily neglected the effect of institutional variables on economic growth. Second, the theoretical framework of economic growth usually follows the empirical evidence on the existence of postulated hypotheses related to the economic growth. Primarily, the effect of religion and other institutional features on economic growth has been displaced to the lack of empirical estimation techniques that could account and control for the effect of the institutional phenomena on the course of economic growth.

The best lucrative and empirically consistent analysis of economic growth and its determinants had been documented by Robert Barro and Xavier Sala-i-Martin. In 2004, Robert Barro published Economic Growth Across Countries. In the explanatory framework, the author included several institutional variables and examined its effect on 10-year economic growth interval in a cross section of 86 countries over 1965-1975, 1975-1985 and 1985-1995 time periods. For a given set of institutional control variables, the rule of law exerted a strong, positive and statistically significant effect on growth. The effect of democracy, the second institutional control variable, was estimated by a single coefficient and its squared term to account for a possible movement of the effect of the level of democracy.

The magnitude of both coefficients was statistically significant. The sign of the squared term was negative suggesting for a typical inverted-U effect of democracy on economic growth. In the meaning of the economic theory, the estimated coefficients suggested that the adoption of democratic institutions and policies in the initial stage of GDP per capita boosts economic growth, particularly by the institutions such as the rule of law, electoral representation, and multiparty political system as well as by the constitutional protection of civil liberties.

However, as countries depart from the initial level of GDP per capita, the political pressure from electoral representation tends to enforce egalitarian policies that negatively effect economic growth, particularly by the fiscal redistribution of income to mitigate income inequality. Consequently, the effect of democratic institutions tends to diminish and, as the curve bends, the predictive effect of constitutional democracy is negative, thereby exerting a negative effect on economic growth. However, the hypothetical relationship between democracy and economic growth is dubious, if not intriguing. In fact, neoclassical growth theories suggest that the rate of economic growth tends to diminish alongside the expansion of the capital stock and productive capacity of the national economy. The hypothesized theoretical assertion postulates that the non-linear, inverted-U effect of democratic institutions on economic growth is overestimated.

In 2003, Robert Barro and Rachel M. McCleary wrote a seminal contribution (link) to the theory and empirics of the relationship between religion and economic growth. Even though in The Protestant Ethics, Max Weber argued that the religious practices and beliefs have had important implications for economic development, the economists paid little or no attention to the role of religiousness as a cultural measure on economic growth. Arguably, the most difficult inferential problem in economic theory is to capture the direction of causality in non-experimental data which indistinguishably confuses the empirical inference from sample estimates. The theoretical relationship between the religion and economic growth is nonetheless a daunting task of the economic theory.

Across the world, there is a whole spectrum of religious diversity in the interplay between religion and economic development. Some countries, such as the United States have been largely influenced by the Enlightenment thought, penned in Thomas Jefferson’s 1779 The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, on religious freedom as the principle of freedom from religious oppression. On the other hand, countries in Northern and some parts of the Continental Europe largely adopted Protestantism as the religious establishment while Southern and Central European countries experienced a strong and coercive influence of Roman Catholicism. Hence, the historical bond of nations in the Middle East and North Africa to the Islamic religion accounts for a significant share of the world population and a representative estimate of the effect of Islam on economic growth.

In addition, many political regimes, particularly in China, Soviet Union and Cuba, have attempted to suppress the religious freedom and, hence, establish a system that officially prohibited and punished the religious practice. Surprisingly, countries in Northern Europe such as Norway, Finland and Iceland have established an official religion that is effectively articled in the constitution. Given the vast difference in the distribution of GDP per capita across countries, the assessment of the relationship between the religion and economic growth is not a triviality per se.

Robert Barro and Rachel M. McCleary constructed a broad cross-country dataset which included national account variables and an array of other political, economic and institutional indicators in a cross section of over 100 countries since 1960. The predicted theoretical expectations postulate whether the religion fosters religious beliefs that influence individual cultural characteristics such as ethics, work and honesty. The authors estimated both the effect of different explanatory variables on religious outcomes such as monthly church attendance, the belief in heaven and the belief in hell.

The estimated coefficients suggest that monthly church attendance is strongly affected by urbanization rate and a set of dichotomous religious variables. In particular, a one percentage point increase in the urbanization rate decreases monthly church attendance rate by 1.49 percentage points, holding all other factors constant. In addition, a 1 percentage point increase in religious pluralism fosters the monthly church attendance rate by 1.35 percentage points, ceteris paribus, while the increase in the measure of the regulation of religion by 1 percentage point decreases the church attendance rate by 0.64 percentage point. Hence, the church attendance rate in countries with official state religion, on average, increases the religious participation by 0.87 percent more compared to countries with the absence of state religion, ceteris paribus. The belief in heaven and hell, on the other hand, is positively correlated with state religion and religious pluralism, Muslim religious faction and other religious factions. The belief in heaven and hell is significantly negatively correlated with urbanization rate, communist regimes, Orthodox religion, Hindu religion and Protestant religion. Barro and McCleary regressed growth rates of real GDP per capita on variables of monthly church attendance rate, belief in heaven, belief in hell and dichotomous (dummy) religious variables representing the share of religion in the countries observed. The table below reports dummy coefficients of each religion relative to the Roman Catholicism. The sign of the coefficient is negative suggesting the increase in the share of each religion (see table) decreases the growth rate of real GDP per capita by less than by the anticipated increase in the share of Roman Catholic religion.

The effect of religion on long-run economic growth
Source: R. Barro & R.M. McCleary: Religion and Economic Growth, 2003.

The p-value for religion shares in the regression specification is about 0.001, suggesting that the hypothetical zero simultaneous effect of the explanatory dummy variables of religious share is easily rejected at 0.1 percent level of statistical significance. The estimate suggests that religious shares influence the growth rate of real GDP per capita. Interestingly, sample estimates of regression coefficients suggest that monthly church attendance is significantly negatively related to the GDP growth rate. The estimated coefficient suggests that higher church attendance will, on average, lead to significantly lower growth rate of real GDP per capita and, hence, a lower growth of the standard of living. On the other hand, the sample estimates of growth regression coefficients suggest that the extent of belief in heaven and hell is positively related to economic growth. Thus, the empirical evidence from the panel of over 100 countries since 1960 suggests that the belief in heaven and hell encourage ethical behavior and honesty and thereby simultaneously increases the growth rate of real GDP per capita. The reported p-value for church attendance and beliefs is 0.000, suggesting the rejection of null hypothesis on a simultaneous zero effect of church attendance and beliefs in hell and heaven on the growth rate of real GDP per capita, and a strong influence of religious factors on the distribution of economic growth across countries since 1960.

Regarding the true importance of religious freedom, not oppression, on the emergence of order alongside the abstract rules and the pursuit of individual liberty, Friedrich August von Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty: “It should be remembered that, so far as men’s actions toward other persons are concerned, freedom can never mean more that they are restricted only by the general rules. Since there is no kind of action that may not interfere with another person’s protected sphere, neither speech, nor the press, nor the exercise of religion can be completely free. In all these fields … freedom does mean and can mean only that what we may do is not dependent on the approval of any person or authority and is limited only by the same abstract rules that apply equally to all.”

In the microeconomic perspective, religious market is highly oligopolistic, especially in Europe where government subsidies to large religious groups discourage the entry of competitive religions in the market. Therefore, in strongly Catholic countries, such as Italy and Spain, Roman Catholic church firmly resembles the behavioral pattern of a dominant firm, facing price inelastic demand and price elastic supply. Subsidies to churches do not quite differ from subsidies to corporations and enterprises - the net effect are lower marginal costs, increasing the total producer surplus of the church and increasing the deadweight loss to the consumers of religious services. A cautionary approach would require not only the precise modeling of the religious market upon the theoretical assumptions but also the contestable empirical evidence on the existence of the Catholic church as a dominant firm in highly oligopolistic religious market.

Incidentally, the empirical evidence suggests strongly negative effect of the share of Roman Catholic religion on the long-run growth rate of real GDP per capita. Nonetheless, religion is an important determinant of economic growth. However, the evidence from the second half of the last century suggests that the prosperity and wealth of nations is greater if people allocate fewer resources to the exercise of religious activities.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Human capital, labor market and economic growth

The OECD recently published the international comparison of the gap in employment rates between university graduates and workers with secondary education or less (link). There is no single exception to the fact that the employment rate is the highest in the group of individuals with college and university degree. Nonetheless, the comparison of the variation in employment rate in the cross section of OECD countries is very interesting.

Among the OECD countries (link), Iceland enjoys the highest employment rate (94.7 percent) of those with college or university degree followed by Switzerland (93.9 percent), Norway (92 percent) and Denmark (91.4 percent). The lowest employment rate for university graduates in 2008 was in Turkey (81.4 percent), Italy (86.5 percent), Israel (86.6 percent) and Greece (87.2 percent). In contrast, the employment rate for those below the secondary education is the lowest in Slovakia (39 percent), Hungary (47.5 percent), Poland (55 percent) and Czech Republic (57.4 percent).

The persistence of high unemployment rate for those below the secondary education degree is a broad outline of the findings from the course of labor economics. The human capital, defined as the stock of years of education per capita, is highly positively correlated with career earnings. The evolution of human capital across the countries has been a subject of debate on economic growth. The empirical study by Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee (link) has shown that, for instance, upper secondary school attendence by males has a significant long-term impact on the economic growth. The level of education, sustained by the years of schooling, is not a sole determinant of economic growth in the international perspective. Although, the economic growth is strongly positively correlated with the average years of schooling, the relationship is less powerful considering different parameters of the educational attainment. In the Barro-Lee dataset (link), there is a significant variation between the share of female population that enrolled in a tertiary education and the share of female that completed the tertiary degree. The difference is significant not only in the cross section but also in the country-based time series.

By far the highest tertiary degree completion rate for female has been present in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. Among other countries, the completion rate of Iceland and the Netherlands has been significantly higher compared to the countries of the Continental and Mediterranean Europe. The rate of return to an additional year of schooling significantly differed across countries and across the level of education. For instance, Barro and Lee estimated that the rate of return is the highest at the tertiary level (17.9 percent per annum) compared to the secondary level (10 percent) while the rate of return from an additional year of schooling at the primary level is statistically insignificant from zero. The picture shows the regional variation in the average rate of return from an additional year of schooling.

Rate of return from an additional year of schooling across the world

Source: R. Barro & J.W Lee: Educational Attainment in the World, 1950-2010 (link)

The creation of human capital is essential to higher economic growth. Ultimately, the investment in human capital is the essential means of higher standard of living in poor countries. An interesting theoretical question is what could account for a divergence across the countries? Considering the relevant economic theory as well as scholarly contributions to the theory and empirics of economic growth, there are several factors that explain the significance of divergence in the rate of return from an additional year of education.

First, the impact of behavioral patterns on education and labor market decisions explains a pretty large part of the difference between the effect of education and labor market structure on the rate of return from schooling. Although the field of behavioral economics (link) is still a largely evolving discipline within the economics, the existing empirical studies of the effects of institutional variables on education outcome try to capture these effects by different proxies such as the estimates of political freedom, the rule of law and civil liberties. The changes in the return to education may be related to these factors since the relative worth of education in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America may incur high opportunity cost given the payoff from predatory behavior or working in the informal sector of the economy.

Second, general and firm-specific human capital investment, the increase in college premium and the enormous increase in female labor force participation help explain high rate of return from an additional year of schooling in advanced countries and East Asia. In particular, East Asian tigers were able to sustain high economic growth rates partly because of well-trained and educated labor force able to use the modern technologies. The resulting outcome of the Asian economic miracles has been a steady growth in output per worker and a gradual convergence of wage rates in South Korea and Japan to the level of U.S. According to Kevin Murphy and Finis Welch (link), the premium of getting a college education in the U.S in 1980s was 67 percent. The growth in college and university attendence rates is largely explained by the robust increase in tertiary education premium.

And third, greater labor force participation of women has also led to higher rates of college and university attendence. In spite the persistent male-female pay gap, women have experienced a tremendous increase in lifetime earnings as a consequence of higher rates of college and university attendence. The persistence of the male-female pay gap can be explained by the rewards to education rather than by inherent gender bias. The U.S. Census published the relevant data (link) on the distribution of female earnings. In 2003, the female earnings of high school graduates in the 25-34 age thresold represented 78 percent of average male earnings. The earnings of the same female age thresold with bachelor's degree represented 89 percent of male earnings and 71 percent for those female with master's degree. What accounts for the gender earnings gap across the levels of age and education is the asymmetric self-selection that led to dispersed gender distribution of relative earnings. Men usually self-select into the areas of work requiring a significant amount of risk-taking and rather uncertain payoffs while the female labor market pattern is inclined towards less risk-taking and greater certainty regarding the stability of lifetime earnings.

The data by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (link) published in 2003, showed that female-to-male earnings ratio in high-paying jobs is the lowest in the field of chief executives where female earnings represented 80 percent of average male earnings in the same field of occupation. On average, the female-to-male earnings ratio declined in low-paying occupations such as cashiers (93 percent), cooks (91 percent), food preparation (93 percent) and hand packaging (101 percent). Contrary to the popular perception, female earnings in the field of computer systems management and legal industry represented 91 percent of average male earnings while the highest ratio in high-paying occupations was recorded in pharmaceutical industry (92 percent).

Indeed, there is a persistent and historically lowest male-female earnings gap. But, as the labor economic theory of human capital predicts, the gender pay difference reflects different cognitive abilities and preferences of occupational selection considering the degree of risk-taking and payoff uncertainty. Even the international test scores (link) confirmed that advantage of female cognitive abilities comprehends in verbal reasoning and reading skills (link) while the cognitive abilities of male are more inclined towards the use of computer technology (link) and mathematics (link).

Even in a cross-country perspective, the gender wage differential persists. The gap, defined as the female-male ratio, ranges from 0.9 in France to 0.7 in Canada. The gender wage differential is a cross section of major economies is shown in the table below.

The Gender Earnings Gap Across Countries

Source: F.D Blau & L.M Kahn, Gender Differences in Pay, 2000

The set of different institutional characteristics of labor market in different countries could easily complement the productivity growth rates as to explain the evolution of wage differential across countries. Even though wage rates are primarily determined by the productivity growth, the existence of collective bargaining schemes and rigid labor market mechanism determining wage rate and total compensation can add significantly to the enforcement of particular labor market policies affecting gender bias in wage determination. In the United States and other advanced countries, the main cause of the wider gender earnings gap is a significant gap between college education premium and high school premium. In addition, reductions in personal income tax rates furthermore increase the rewards to college education relative to the education levels of high school or less - which, by the empirical evidence, seems to be the main determinant of earnings gap in the labor market of advanced countries.