The Rough Road to Reunification: Germany’s Struggles Toward Economic Convergence

The political reunification of Germany in 1990 moved at an astounding pace. Integrating the two regions economically, however, has proven to be far more difficult, and this process will certainly be ongoing for years to come.

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Image Description: This image, painted on a section of the Berlin Wall, depicts an East German Trabant (“Trabi”) driving through the Wall into the Western side, with the date of the fall of the Wall on the license plate. This little car, with an engine akin to that of a lawn mower, was a prized possession for East Germans (it took approximately 15 years of saving to get one) and has become an iconic symbol of East German culture.

Travelers arriving in Berlin are bound to notice that memories of the Cold War still linger in the city. A succession of stones marking the location of the Berlin Wall bisects the city, just as the Wall itself once did. The famous “Fernsehturm” (“TV Tower”) still stands in the eastern part of the city, although it no longer blocks television signals from Western Europe, as it was designed to do when half of Berlin belonged to the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR, also known as “East Germany”). Yet when the Cold War ended, the GDR ceased to exist and became part of the unified Germany that we see in Europe today. In many ways, eastern and western Germany are now one–they share the same political system, for example, and citizens on both sides of the former Iron Curtain enjoy freedom of movement within Germany and within the European Union as a whole. Economically, however, the two continue to be vastly different, leading some to wonder if the Iron Curtain was ever truly lifted.

The political process of German reunification moved at an astounding pace. By the end of 1990, a reunified Germany existed on the European landscape, a Germany that now included the five “new federal states” of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia, as well as the entirety of Berlin. Integrating the two regions economically, however, has proven to be far more difficult, and this process will certainly be ongoing for years to come. Remnants of the Soviet-style command economy used by East Germany have hindered the region’s development, leading Germany’s new federal states to trail the rest of Germany in almost every measure of economic prosperity. And although German taxpayers have poured more than $2 trillion into helping the former GDR develop, Germany’s new federal states continue to experience significantly lower labor productivity and significantly weaker private sectors than their western neighbors, which in turn has contributed to chronic high unemployment and lower average incomes. Furthermore, despite large investments in the new federal states, the former GDR has lacked opportunity relative to Germany’s western states, and a steady stream of outward migration has caused the region to lose almost two million people since the fall of the Iron Curtain. This large outflow of workers and their families has exacerbated the region’s demographic challenges, and the outflow of human capital dampened economic prospects for the region and for the East Germans who decided to stay.

Labor productivity in the former GDR (and in eastern Europe in general) has been, and continues to be, significantly lower than labor productivity in western European countries. In 1990, East German labor productivity was just two-fifths that of West Germany, despite the fact that education levels in the GDR were similar to those of western Germany, and perhaps even higher. This is largely because the GDR used outdated technology and capital stock, which prevented East Germans from producing as much per capita as their West German peers. This also required firms to take on a large labor force whose sole purpose was to service the equipment and keep it running. In the 1990s, funding from the German government allowed these firms to upgrade their capital stock, a much needed reform for a region whose firms would be competing on the global market. However, the presence of such funding eliminated the need for large service teams, ultimately costing many East Germans their jobs.

East Germany’s low labor productivity also meant that East German labor became quickly overvalued following reunification. During reunification, then-chancellor Helmut Kohl offered the East a monetary union in which East German marks could be exchanged for West German marks on a 1:1 basis. While the move was politically popular, it proved to be an economic disaster as firms in the former GDR quickly found themselves with a labor force that they could no longer afford. “Instead of one to one,” former German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière recalled, “the exchange rate should have been one to three or one to four, to reflect the economic reality….” The shock that came from the 1:1 exchange rate forced eastern firms to lay off workers en masse–in the industrial sector, two-thirds of all employees were laid off in a short period of time.

It is important to note that over the past 28 years, the former GDR has made tremendous strides in improving labor productivity, and has fared far better than Germany’s eastern European neighbors. The benefits of Germany’s $2.34 trillion investment in the former GDR are certainly visible–in 2014, the productivity gap between eastern and western Germany hovered around 20 percent, whereas the productivity gap between eastern European countries and western Germany hovered around 60 percent. High labor productivity is crucial for any economy, without it, it becomes very hard for that economy’s workers to be competitive in a global market. Thus, the reforms that were made to increase labor productivity in the former GDR, while painful, have been necessary.

Since 1990, the former GDR has experienced significantly higher unemployment rates than Germany as a whole, largely due to the layoffs spurred by increases in labor productivity. The new federal states struggled with double digit unemployment figures throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, with unemployment peaking at 18.5 percent in 2005. In some states, the figures were even worse–throughout the 1990s, around 49 percent of the working-age population of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt was either registered as unemployed or participating in an employment initiative. Significant progress has been made in decreasing eastern Germany’s unemployment rate. Yet even in 2016, western Germany had an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, while eastern Germany had a rate of 8.5 percent, a gap of 2.9 percentage points.

Despite the extensive financial support that the former GDR has received since 1990, eastern Germany also continues to experience structural weakness due to an underdeveloped private sector. Eastern German firms are typically half the size of the average western German firms, and out of Germany’s 500 largest firms, only 34 have their headquarters in former East Germany. None of those 34 are part of Germany’s authoritative DAX stock index. Large firms bring many benefits to the regions where they are headquartered by attracting skilled labor,  providing a variety of employment opportunities, and by crucially stimulating innovation. The lack of a large business presence in eastern Germany has thus caused the region to miss out on all of these benefits.

One side effect of eastern Germany’s weak private sector includes lower levels of research and development (R&D) funding, particularly from private sources. In western Germany, more than half of R&D funds come from private sources, whereas in eastern Germany, more than half of R&D funds come from universities and government grants. Although research funding as a whole has been increasing in the former GDR, private R&D investment has not increased at the same rate. In 2013, for example, the former GDR had reached 86 percent of the western German level of overall R&D spending, but only 50 percent of the western German level of R&D spending funded by private sources. Eastern Germany also sees relatively few patentable innovations, compared to western German states, producing only one-third as many patents as western Germany in 2010.

Much has been achieved thus far in the process of unifying Germany’s eastern and western regions. Standards of living in eastern Germany are approaching those of western Germany. Workers in eastern Germany have become much more productive since 1990, and the East’s GDP per capita has risen considerably as well. Average levels of life satisfaction, which dropped sharply in the early 1990s in eastern Germany, are now the highest that they have been in both regions since reunification. Even so, reunification has not been without its painful side effects.

The story of Germany’s reunification, while unique, offers lessons for countries, politicians, and individuals around the world, extending far beyond the boundaries of Germany itself. The experience of East Germans and the transition of eastern Germany is interesting because it offers guidance as to how to help countries formerly ruled by dictatorships succeed in the global market economy. Today, the European Union contains many countries that were formerly behind the Iron Curtain–Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, to name a few, who still have a long way to go to catch up to their Western European neighbors in the economic sense. Furthermore, given the planned accession of countries in the Western Balkans to the European Union, the story of German economic reunification could not be more relevant.

 

 

 

 

The Market for Citizenship

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Every country has a comparative advantage, the ability to produce some sort of good or service and produce it well. The United States, for example, has a thriving airplane industry, France is known for its cheese, and Saudi Arabia is a major oil producer. Some countries, however, have found more unusual niches. In the case of some, especially smaller island nations such as Dominica, that comparative advantage appears to be purchasing citizenship.

The number of “Economic Citizenship Programs” (ECPs or Citizenship by Investment Programs) worldwide has surged in recent years. Such programs allow wealthy individuals to legally obtain citizenship and a passport in return for a large contribution to a national development fund or a sizable real estate investment in that country. What’s more, many of these programs don’t require individuals to relinquish their existing citizenship, and instead allow them to hold multiple citizenships simultaneously. The concept of the ECP is not new; St. Kitts and Nevis’ program dates back to 1984, and Dominica introduced its Citizenship by Investment program in 1993. Today, between 30 and 40 countries have such programs, offering either immediate citizenship in exchange for an investment or a faster track to obtain citizenship for those who make a large investment in that country.

Worldwide, several thousand individuals spend around $2 billion per year to obtain citizenship and passports through ECPs. The market for citizenship is growing, with most investors coming from China, Russia or the Middle East, places where political circumstances at home make international travel difficult. ECPs tend to target wealthy individuals from developing countries who may have the means to travel internationally, but lack a passport that will enable them to do so. A wealthy executive from the Middle East, for example, will likely be able to travel to many more countries visa-free with a Caribbean passport than he would be able to with a passport issued by a country such as Iraq. For wealthy individuals from poor or otherwise unstable countries who love to travel, going through the process to buy a second passport, while often time-consuming and expensive, is entirely worth it.

Particularly for those countries that are smaller and less affluent, ECPs generate large revenue streams with little hassle. Frequently, when a national government needs money, it will resort to either raising taxes, cutting spending, or issuing sovereign debt. Raising taxes and cutting spending can be politically unpopular, especially during a recession. Sovereign debt, while a popular option, does require governments to pay interest to investors, thus introducing a financial obligation. Legally selling passports, however, imposes no additional costs on the taxpayer base and does not require a national government to pay back investors. Instead, a national government can capitalize on the appeal of citizenship and use these earnings to finance other debts, development programs, and disaster recovery programs. (Disaster recovery programs are especially important for hurricane-prone Caribbean nations).

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A street in Malta’s capital, Valletta. While Malta’s ECP is pricier than many, it does offer investors easy access to continental Europe via Malta’s EU membership.

Take the case of Dominica’s Citizenship by Investment Program, one of the world’s most lenient ECPs, allowing individuals to receive almost immediate citizenship and a passport in exchange for either a $100,000 donation to the country’s Economic Diversification Fund or a $200,000 investment in a government-approved real estate development project. It only requires that the investor hold on to the property for at least three years. Furthermore, Dominica’s program has no residency requirement whatsoever. In other words, it is possible to become a citizen of Dominica with no intention of ever going there.

Dominica’s Citizenship by Investment Program has had remarkable success, with the tiny island nation selling around 2,000 passports per year. Dominica is not an affluent country — its GDP per capita was $7,144 in 2016 — and its main industries, namely tourism, agriculture, and light manufacturing, are not especially lucrative. Recruiting foreign investment through citizenship, therefore, allows Dominica to capitalize on its status as a small country with a benign presence on the world stage. Dominican citizenship is especially attractive to wealthy individuals from unstable regions of the world, as Dominican passport holders can travel to over 120 countries without a visa. Furthermore, the Dominican government has gone to great lengths to make the island a business-friendly place. In Dominica, there are no capital gains, inheritance, foreign income, or wealth taxes, and qualifying entities can be exempted from import duties.

One of the oldest ECPs, that of St. Kitts and Nevis, began as a means to cope with the withdrawal of European sugar subsidies, which destroyed the local economy. Today, anyone interested in obtaining citizenship from the tiny nation of 55,000 can do so either by contributing $250,000 to St. Kitts and Nevis’ Sugar Diversification Industry Fund, which is tasked with diversifying the sugar-dominated economy, or by investing $400,000 in a government-approved real estate project. So far, St. Kitts and Nevis has sold over 10,000 passports for at least $250,000 each, and earnings from its program now account for around 25 percent of its GDP. These inflows have also benefited St. Kitts and Nevis’ real estate, tourism, and construction industries.

Small Caribbean nations are not the only countries to have citizenship by investment programs. Approximately half of European Union member states have immigrant investor programs, and those who buy in benefit from the freedom of mobility throughout the EU under the Schengen Agreement. Typically, these programs cost more than programs in the Caribbean and have stricter residency requirements, but those who do buy in are able to live and work anywhere in the EU. Even the United States has an immigrant investor route: the EB-5 (Employment-Based Fifth Preference Immigrant Investor) visa program reserves around 10,000 visas per year for immigrants who invest at least $1 million to create or preserve jobs in the United States (or $500,000, if the investment is made in a high-unemployment or rural area). A qualifying immigrant investor, plus a spouse and children, then receive 2-year conditional green cards that can potentially be converted into permanent resident status, and eventually, citizenship.

ECPs, however, have come under criticism, and have been exploited for purposes of criminal activity. Italian businessman Francesco Corallo, for example, managed to purchase a Dominican diplomatic passport despite being on Interpol’s most-wanted list for tax evasion and bribing politicians. When confronted, Corallo tried to claim diplomatic immunity by saying that he was Dominica’s permanent representative to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (his claim failed to sway the authorities, however, and he is now being held in St. Maarten). Similarly, St. Kitts and Nevis’ program has drawn criticism from around the world for its lax controls, and in November 2014, Canada revoked St. Kitts and Nevis citizens’ visa-free travel privileges, thus diminishing the power of the St. Kitts and Nevis passport. The United States’ program has also drawn criticism and has been accused of “selling American citizenship” as opposed to merely attracting foreign investment. Furthermore, it is very difficult to measure the impact that immigrant investors have had on the American economy, leading many to question the EB-5 program’s effectiveness and efficiency.

ECPs provide an innovative way for countries to raise revenue without having to raise taxes or take on more sovereign debt, often providing revenue for development projects, and sometimes disaster recovery that would not have been available otherwise. Yet the success of these programs relies on a solid design that promotes the efficient use of investor funds and that prevents criminals from exploiting the system. If designed well, these programs are a lifeline; if not, they can become pipelines for international crime.

 

 

 

The Argentine Inflation Problem

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In the final week of 2017, Argentina’s Merval index, the most important index of Argentina’s stock exchange, hit the 30,000 point mark for the first time in history, surging 77 percent in 2017 alone. Economic growth within Argentina appears to be strengthening, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is optimistic that Argentina will continue to experience growth in its agriculture, manufacturing, retail and construction sectors in the near future. All of this is welcome news, both for Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, and for the people of Argentina, as the country appears to be emerging from recession. Yet despite this welcome news, the Argentinian economy remains beleaguered by one particularly insidious force: high inflation.

According to Argentine daily newspaper La Nación, Argentina had the second highest rate of inflation in the entirety of Latin America in 2017, ending the year with an inflation rate of 24.8 percent. The only Latin American country with an inflation rate higher than that of Argentina was the catastrophic Venezuela, which experienced an inflation rate of 2,616 percent in 2017. Argentina’s high inflation rate has plagued the country, leading to the deterioration of the Argentine peso vis-à-vis other currencies while causing prices to soar, and must be brought under control if Argentina and its industries are to succeed on a global scale.

High inflation wreaks havoc on economies via a rapid rise in prices, the erosion of the purchasing power of an individual’s income, and the deterioration of the value of an individual’s savings. An extremely high rate of inflation (a rate of 1,000 percent or more) is known as a hyperinflation, which cripples economies and can be very difficult to recover from. Zimbabwe’s inflation rate, for example, hit 500 billion percent in 2008, marking the worst hyperinflation event in global history. When billions, even trillions, of Zimbabwe dollars became less valuable than the paper they were printed on, the country was forced to give up its national currency. Today, Zimbabweans conduct transactions using foreign currencies such as the U.S. dollar, the British pound and the Indian rupee.

Argentina’s inflation woes stretch back decades. In the mid-1970s, Argentina’s inflation rate shot up and averaged 300 percent per year for the next 15 years. In 1989, the inflation rate in Argentina hit a whopping 3,079 percent. In an attempt to cure the hyperinflation of the late 1980s, Argentina introduced a currency board in 1991, under which the peso was pegged one-to-one with the U.S. dollar. In other words, as the dollar appreciated and depreciated in relation to other currencies, the value of the peso would move with it. For a short period of time, the currency board was successful and tamed Argentina’s high inflation levels. However, over the course of the 1990s, as the dollar appreciated, Argentina’s currency board became overvalued, harming the country’s competitiveness globally and plunging the country into recession. With the collapse of the dollar peg also came elevated inflation, and the currency board was abandoned in 2001.

Inflation dropped to 10 percent in 2003, but it began to rise again during the presidential administrations of Nestor Kirchner and his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Yet as the inflation rate became worse and worse, Argentina’s government chose to deny it: when told in 2012 that the inflation rate in Argentina was 27 percent, Ms. Kirchner scoffed. “If it were as high as they say it is,” the then-president retorted, “the country would explode.” During Cristina Kirchner’s presidency, INDEC, the government statistical office in Argentina, began producing doctored inflation statistics that grossly underestimated the true inflation rate and nearly destroyed the country’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund. The Economist stopped printing the inflation statistics published by INDEC in its weekly issues.

Persistent high inflation has pushed up market interest rates, forcing Argentina’s government to pay an interest rate of around 25 percent to borrow in pesos. It has also destroyed Argentina’s mortgage market, forcing many Argentinians to pay upfront (and often in dollars, given the peso’s volatility), in addition to diminishing private sector lending overall by causing interest rates to skyrocket. Across low and middle-income economies, private sector lending constituted around 97 percent of GDP in 2016, and in Latin America, that number was approximately 49 percent. In Argentina, private sector lending constituted a mere 14 percent of GDP in 2016, giving Argentina one of the lowest rates in the entire world. This rate is on par with rates seen in deeply impoverished countries, such as Zimbabwe (12 percent) and Haiti (18.3 percent).

Confidence in the Argentine peso faltered, and over the next few years, it dramatically dropped in value vis-à-vis the dollar. Argentinians dumped the pesos they had and poured their wealth into U.S. dollars before their savings would wither away any further – a practice that soon became largely illegal. President Cristina Kirchner instituted currency controls that made it nearly impossible for Argentinians to purchase dollar assets. These currency controls had the unintended consequence of making Argentinians poorer compared to savers in other countries, as they were being forced to invest in an asset that was rapidly losing value. Upon the implementation of the currency controls, a black market for U.S. dollars quickly emerged in Argentina. Known as the “blue market,” it enabled Argentinians to purchase dollars against the law, albeit at exorbitant prices. In Buenos Aires, cuevas, or caves, popped up across the city to facilitate dollar purchases, and even the smallest cuevas would handle $50,000 to $75,000 in transactions per day.

When Mauricio Macri was elected president in November of 2015, he soon embarked on a variety of much needed, albeit painful, reforms to rehabilitate the Argentine economy. The former mayor of Buenos Aires quickly restored the independence of INDEC, charging the agency with creating a new and accurate inflation rate. While the move restored credibility to INDEC (The Economist began to publish INDEC’s inflation statistics again in 2017), it revealed how uncomfortably high Argentina’s inflation rate actually was. Under President Cristina Kirchner, inflation in Argentina averaged around 10 percent per year according to INDEC. Upon the election of Mauricio Macri, INDEC found that number to be closer to 25 percent.

President Macri also ended the Kirchner-era currency controls, once again allowing the peso to float freely. While this allowed Argentinians to invest in more stable assets and freed Argentina’s exporters from the burden of an overvalued peso, it also caused the value of the peso to decline further, and pushed inflation up to 40 percent in 2016. The day that the end to the currency controls was announced, the Argentine peso fell by 29 percent against the dollar

President Macri’s economic reforms initially eroded his popularity, and by metaphorically “biting the bullet” and pushing through the economic reforms that Argentina desperately needed, President Macri put himself and his party at great political risk. In 2017, however, Argentina’s fortunes began to turn around. In July, the Argentine economy expanded by 4.9 percent, and salaries began to rise. Furthermore, business confidence rose, the percentage of Argentinians living under the poverty line fell, and inflation began to fall as well. President Macri and his “Let’s Change” coalition experienced a much-needed popularity boost as well, with the coalition winning 41 percent of the vote in Argentina’s October 2017 midterm elections. This electoral mandate encouraged the president to go ahead with work on reforming the tax code and reducing Argentina’s budget deficit.
Overall, Argentina’s prospects are looking up. Argentina’s stock market had a banner year in 2017, and on February 20, Forbes published an article titled “Is Argentina The New Darling Of Emerging Markets?” Yet persistent high inflation threatens to derail Argentina’s economic recovery. The sooner its inflation rate can be brought back to a low, stable and predictable level, the better.

Much Ado About Rice: Thailand’s Rice Market Exploitation Wildly Backfires

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On August 25, former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was due to appear in court to hear the verdict on her trial over involvement in a rice subsidy scandal. If she is found guilty of negligence, she could face up to ten years in prison. Yet Ms. Shinawatra never showed up in court, and many officials believe she may have fled the country.

The rice subsidy program, which led to Ms. Shinawatra’s impeachment in January of 2015 as well as her subsequent trial, started off as a well-intentioned plan to help Thailand’s agricultural sector. It was one of the main selling points for her populist party, Pheu Thai, during the 2011 campaign cycle, and helped to win the party a landslide victory. Approximately 23 percent of the Thai population are farmers, and the subsidy program was intended to help Thailand’s rice farmers earn more for their crop.

The program worked like this: the government would buy rice from farmers at up to double the market price. Then, the rice would be stockpiled and withheld from the global market in order to drive global rice prices up. Once global rice prices rose, the Thai government would sell the rice and make a profit in the process.

At the time the program was implemented, Thailand was the world’s largest exporter of rice. In addition to having a warm, damp climate, Thailand has an abundance of fresh water sources, making it an ideal location for rice production. Furthermore, the Thai people have plenty of experience producing rice–it has been their staple crop for over 5,000 years. (“In the water there are fish, in the field there is rice” is a proverbial Thai saying). All of these factors combine to give Thailand an overall advantage in rice production vis-a-vis many other countries, which have neither the climate nor the experience in such a line of production.

When a country has this comparative advantage in the production of a good, it means that that country can produce that good more efficiently than other countries can. For example, Thailand can produce rice more efficiently than Norway can because its climate and topography are better suited for rice production. Therefore, Thailand will gain the most economically if it can focus its resources on rice production, thereby producing more rice at a lower cost.  Thailand can then purchase the goods and services it does not produce as efficiently from countries that do have comparative advantages in those lines of production. If we consider the Thailand and Norway example, we notice that Thailand can sell its rice to Norway and in turn buy oil, a good that Norway has a comparative advantage in. If two countries can play to their comparative advantages and focus on what they can produce most efficiently, they can produce more, sell more, and purchase other goods at lower prices. Thus, two trading partners can actually gain from trade.

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Former Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra has come under fire for the rice debacle

It is important to remember, however, that a comparative advantage in a certain line of production does not guarantee that a country will dominate a given market. In designing the rice subsidy program, this was the Thai government’s — and Ms. Shinawatra’s — critical mistake. There is no such thing as a patent on rice production; anyone who lives in an area with ideal conditions for growing rice can do so. Thailand is not the only country with ideal conditions for growing rice. When Thailand withdrew rice from the global market, countries such as India and Vietnam jumped in to fill the gap. The presence of these competitors meant that the global price of rice did not rise as the Thai government had hoped. Instead, rice prices plummeted, going from a peak of $1,000 per ton in 2008 to around $390 per ton in 2014. Thai farmers were edged out of the global rice market, rice exports fell by a third, and the Thai government was forced to stockpile 18 million tons of rice in the first year of the program alone. In the end, the rice subsidy fiasco cost Thailand around $15 billion. Given that GDP per capita in Thailand hovers around $6,000, this is a gargantuan sum.

Despite the heavy losses that the Thai government sustained, then Prime Minister Shinawatra refused to end or reform the program. As the program lost more and more money, government scandals and social unrest ensued. In February of 2014, a group of rice farmers threatened to park 100 tractors at Bangkok’s airport as they had not been paid for their rice. In May of 2014, Ms. Shinawatra was removed from office by the Thai Constitutional Court after six months of anti-government protests, riots, and occupations of government buildings. In July of this year, the military junta now in control in Thailand froze some of Ms. Shinawatra’s bank accounts and ordered her to pay $1 billion in civil damages. And on August 25, the same day Ms. Shinawatra failed to appear in court, her former commerce minister, Boonsong Teriyapirom, was sentenced to 42 years in prison for falsifying government-to-government rice deals with China in an attempt to cover up losses on the rice subsidy scheme.

Ms. Shinawatra’s rice subsidy program, which started off as a well-intentioned plan to help Thai farmers, ended in losses and Ms. Shinawatra’s removal from office. Interestingly, much of the instability that stemmed from the program and the government’s response to its failure is rooted in economics, or rather, faulty economic assumptions. It is true that Thailand has a comparative advantage in rice production. Yet the benefits of a comparative advantage can only be reaped if a country sells the goods it produces well and maintains its market share. Pulling out of the market is very dangerous, for a competitor may be ready and willing to take your place.

 

Small change, huge impact: How remittances assist development in impoverished regions of the world

 

remittancesIn 2016, Mexicans living abroad sent home $27 billion in remittances home to Mexico, the largest remittance influx that Mexico has ever received. Remittance inflows now surpass crude oil and tourism as major sources of income for Mexico, and much of these inflows go to Mexico’s most rural, impoverished areas, where they are a lifeline. Most of the remittances sent to Mexico came from the United States due to a strong U.S. labor market, a weakening Mexican peso, and fears that the Trump administration may tax remittances in order to pay for a border wall.

Often, due to poor economic prospects and a lack of opportunity at home, migrants will seek work abroad and send back a portion of their earnings to help friends and family. These funds that are sent back are called remittances. Between 1960 and 2010, the number of migrants increased from 90 million to 215 million worldwide, and migration to western Europe and the United States accounts for around two thirds of this growth. In 2015, more than $431 billion in remittances were sent to developing countries, with each remittance (also referred to as a transaction) averaging around $200. In many developing countries, remittances constitute a huge source of cash inflow; in 2013, remittance inflows globally were three times larger than inflows from official foreign aid, and remittances regularly exceed foreign direct investment in developing countries. When considering a nation’s development, it is common for policymakers and others to only consider foreign aid and largely disregard remittances as a source for development funds. It is important to remember, however, that the remittances that migrants send home have powerful impacts on encouraging development and reducing poverty in the developing world.

In developing regions around the world, remittances are a lifeline, bringing much needed funds to people who are barely scraping by. India was the biggest destination for remittances in 2015, followed by China, the Philippines, and then Mexico. Some countries could not function without substantial funds from abroad–remittances make up 29 percent of Nepal’s GDP, and in Tajikistan, that number is 42 percent. For countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, such as Tajikistan, remittances are especially vital.

In impoverished parts of Mexico, remittances constitute around 19.5 percent of income, which is an even higher percentage than the contributions to income from government welfare programs. The remittances that families receive are put to use covering basic needs first, with the rest going towards investments and paying back debts, allowing those who receive enough in remittances to begin to focus on getting out of poverty. A report published by the Inter-American Development Bank found that in rural Mexico, 74 percent of remittance monies are used to cover basic costs of living, with 16 percent used to pay debts and 5 percent used towards investing in the home. Furthermore, remittances have a tendency to act like insurance for recipients. Remittances tend to be  countercyclical–during an economic downturn or after a natural disaster in migrants’ home countries, remittance flows actually increase, allowing some of the poorest members of the global population to better weather financial crises.

In many cases, recipients of remittances use those funds to enroll their children in school, which allows them to achieve higher levels of education that can lead to higher-paying jobs. Data from the World Bank show that in many countries in Latin America, children in families that receive remittances are more likely to stay in school and have higher educational attainment. Thus, remittances provide a means for families to invest in the skills of their children, giving them tools that can help them break the cycle of poverty in later life.

There is also evidence that increases in remittance flows received by people in Mexico correspond directly to a decrease in crime. A study by the Inter-American Development Bank found that for every percentage point increase in remittances, street robberies in Mexico declined by 0.19 percent and homicides decreased by 0.4 percent. This decline can be attributed to several factors. First, as mentioned above, remittance flows give families the opportunity to send their children to school, reducing the incentive for these children to commit crimes. Not only does being in school prevent children from engaging in criminal activity, but the extra years of education allow students to eventually get higher-paying jobs that allow them to make ends meet without having to resort to crime. Second, remittances increase income and therefore decrease the benefits derived from committing crimes, and studies conducted in Brazil and in Colombia confirm this. Finally, 5 percent of remittance funds in Mexico are used towards home expenses, which stimulates the construction sector leading to the creation of construction jobs. These jobs offer people, particularly those with little education, the chance to earn a living without having to turn to crime.

In January of 2017, Mexican immigrants in the United States sent $2 billion back to Mexico, up 6.3 percent from this time last year. While a weaker peso did play a role in this jump, much of the increase stems from fears about a potential tax on remittances being sent from America. It is true that large sums of money flow from the United States into Mexico each year. However, this money is put to good use in impoverished regions where it is needed most. It allows children to stay in school longer and makes them less likely to commit crimes. It enables families to make ends meet and lays the groundwork for recipients to lift themselves out of poverty. Given the important role that remittances play in assisting in the development of impoverished regions of Mexico, such a tax would significantly hurt the people who rely heavily on those remittances to make ends meet.

Ireland’s Brexit Dilemma: How Britain’s Decision to Leave the E.U. Could Impact the Irish Economy

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British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to Irish Taoiseach (PM) Enda Kenny

In the months leading up to the UK’s Brexit vote, Irish officials advocated for Britain to remain in the EU and stressed the close ties that Britain and Ireland have. However, the Brexit vote did not go as many in the Irish government had hoped. As the UK prepares to trigger Article 50 and formally begin the process of exiting the EU by March of next year, the Irish government is preparing to deal with the effects of one of their closest trade partners and neighbors leaving the largest trade block in the world.

In assessing the effects of Brexit, many analysts focus primarily on how the British economy would be impacted. Yet the effects of Brexit extend far beyond Britain itself. Ireland and Britain have close ties due to shared history and geographic proximity. Furthermore, when Britain and Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the Irish economy was still heavily reliant on Britain for many products that it was unable to produce itself. While Ireland has become much less dependent on the British economy over the last few decades, the two countries still have close economic relationships, and for Ireland, it looks like Britain’s departure from the EU is going to hurt. A recent study by the Irish Department of Finance estimates that Britain’s departure would cause Ireland’s GDP to drop by as much as four percent, with negative effects on wages and employment in Ireland lasting for the next 10 years.

Britain and Ireland trade heavily with one another, and a Brexit will likely damage the Irish export market and lead to higher import prices. Every week, Ireland and Britain trade approximately €1 billion worth of goods and services. Ireland sends 16 percent of its exports to the UK, the most it sends to any one country, and Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that bilateral trade between the two countries could decrease by as much as 20 percent after Britain leaves the EU. Overall, Ireland has a trade deficit in merchandise with the United Kingdom, and its agricultural and metals sectors heavily depend on exporting to the UK.

For instance, 50 percent of Irish beef exports go to Britain, as do 55 percent of construction and timber exports. The UK is also Ireland’s greatest source for merchandise imports, and as Ireland’s economy is small, it has fewer opportunities to substitute imports with locally produced goods. Once the UK leaves the EU, it will likely be subject to the EU’s import tariffs for imports coming from “third countries.” The institution of tariffs for imports into the UK from Ireland and vice versa, therefore, will likely lead to higher prices for goods sold in Ireland.

Both Ireland and the UK have expressed interest in keeping the Common Travel Area (CTA) that has existed along the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland since 1923. Over the past 90 years, this invisible border has facilitated trade between the two nations, allowed citizens to work in each others’ countries, and has contributed to political stability in Northern Ireland. However, once Britain leaves the EU, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will become the western border of the EU, which may require passport controls that would greatly restrict movement between the two countries. Currently, the British and Irish governments are exploring ways to keep the CTA after the Brexit occurs.

No one has a greater potential to gain from Brexit, however, than Ireland’s financial sector. The UK has the largest inward FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) stock of any nation in Europe and has a powerful financial services sector. Leaving the EU’s single market will likely damage that financial vitality and could spur many firms to relocate all or part of their operations to cities in other countries. As an educated, English speaking city that already has a sizeable financial sector, Dublin is definitely a strong candidate. Currently, Ireland is home to €3 trillion of investment and money market funds. With some additional investments in housing, communications and infrastructure, Ireland and Dublin especially would likely benefit from firms in Britain relocating abroad.

In her speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October, Theresa May declared that “Brexit means Brexit — and we’re going to make a success of it.” Both the Irish and the British certainly hope so. The less dramatic Britain’s departure from the EU is, the better off Ireland will be. As Irish political commentator Johnny Fallon notes, “Some in Europe would be very happy to see post-Brexit Britain collapse. Not Ireland. We’re very eager to see Britain hold up.”

Everbooked and Dynamic Pricing in the Share Economy

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We live in an era of sharing. Technological developments and online platforms allow people today to network and earn extra income by sharing assets they already have – their cars (Uber and Lyft), their household goods (Snapgoods), and even their homes and apartments (Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway). Collectively, this activity is known as the “share economy,” and it is rapidly growing. Participating in the share economy is simple: go online, or open an app, and in minutes you can find a ride or a place to stay for the weekend.

Founded in 2008, Airbnb allows users to rent a place to stay overnight in a private home or apartment. Having personally used Airbnb, I can attest to the benefits of renting a private place while on vacation it’s often less expensive than a hotel, there are more options to choose from, and staying in a private place has a “local feel.” As Airbnb advertises, “Don’t go there. Live there.” This online platform has proven very popular: Airbnb today is worth around $24 billion and has helped over 40 million people find a place to stay. As Airbnb’s rapid growth both in the United States and abroad continues, Airbnb landlords are taking advantage of data science in order to raise more revenue and secure a greater number of bookings. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with David Ordal, the CEO of a Bay-Area startup known as Everbooked that assists Airbnb landlords with market analytics and a technique known as dynamic pricing.

Dynamic pricing involves continually adjusting prices to adapt to changes in demand that are detected through data analysis. American Airlines is credited with being the first company to adopt this technique; in the early 1980s, it began experimenting with “Super Saver” ticket prices that were adjusted based upon seat availability, demand, and how far in advance customers made reservations. The results were impressive – American Airlines’ revenues skyrocketed the next year. Dynamic pricing is now universal in the airline industry, and the hotel industry has used dynamic pricing for a long time as well. Ordal founded Everbooked in 2014 when he noticed that dynamic pricing was not widely used in the vacation rental industry. He saw an opportunity in bringing dynamic pricing and data analytics to landlords renting through Airbnb. “We do the same thing as airlines, but for a place to stay,” Ordal explained. Today, Everbooked operates in 3,322 cities across the United States and looks to expand internationally in the future.

Everbooked uses an algorithm to scan through market data in real time, searching for changes in various demand factors. “We look at different factors for demand, such as seasonal trends and weekend and weekday tracks,” Ordal said. He noted that, in some cases, weekdays actually see higher demand than weekends, often due to business travelers. In addition, the algorithm tracks Airbnb reservations in a given area and even examines local FAA air traffic data, which has proven to be a good metric for predicting how many people are traveling to and from a particular locale. When the algorithm detects something notable, it automatically updates users’ prices within hours of detection. The end result is that, by having their prices updated in real time, Airbnb landlords can earn an extra 14-38 percent in revenue each year.

“A lot of clients are professional landlords,” Ordal added. “We work with hosts who are more business-oriented. These are the people who really want to understand the market, who really want to understand analytics.” In addition to automatically updating clients’ prices, Everbooked also compiles huge amounts of data on rental units in various locales across the United States, allowing clients to compare their listings to those of other nearby Airbnb landlords. On the Everbooked website, an Airbnb landlord can see what types of listings they are competing against – whether homes, apartments, or condominiums – and the average prices for each of these types of listings throughout the year. Several histograms display which prices are the most common among various types of listings, as well as which types of listings are the most popular in a given locale. Everbooked also creates graphs to help clients determine the prices they should charge for extra guests, and provides up-to-date information on seasonal demand trends.

At one time, the benefits of dynamic pricing were limited to large, highly organized businesses. Today, with the rise of the share economy, that landscape is dramatically changing. Ordal thinks that someday dynamic pricing will become universal among vacation rentals. I agree – there are simply too many benefits to pass up.