Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rethinking the Macroeconomics of Resource Rich Countries

VoxEU has a new e-book out on the way forward for commodity producing economies (excerpt):

Rethinking the macroeconomics of resource-rich countries: A new eBook
Rabah Arezki, Raouf Boucekkine, Jeffrey Frankel, Mohammed Laksaci, Rick van der Ploeg 24 April 2018

After years of high commodity prices, a new era of lower ones, especially for oil, seems likely to persist. This will be challenging for resource-rich countries, which must cope with the decline in income that accompanies the lower prices and the potential widening of internal and external imbalances. This column presents a new VOXEU eBook in which leading economists from academia and the public and private sector examine the shifting landscape in commodity markets and look at the exchange rate, monetary, and fiscal options policymakers have, as well as the role of finance, including sovereign wealth funds, and diversification.

It’s a compilation of papers from a 2016 conference, and to be honest, doesn’t really present anything ground-shakingly new on the subject. However, it does provide a convenient entree for those not familiar with the conduct of macro-policy in commodity producing countries (i.e. most Malaysians).

The article itself provides a short precis of the e-book, which you can download here.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Effective Exchange Rate Indexes: March 2018 Update

The NEER and REER page has been updated, as has the Google Docs version.

Summary

A late CPI release by Taiwan caused this update to be late, as well as an update to the trade weights, based on export-import data for 4Q17.

On contrast to the last few months, the Ringgit was largely stable for March 2018, though still tending to the upside.The nominal broad index was up 6.42% yoy, but just 0.05% on the month (REER: 6.23%, 0.06%). The picture for the sub-indexes was equally mixed, with the nominal broad index down –0.14% compared to February, but with the real index up 0.06%.

Still, gains were broad-based, with the Ringgit up against 11 currencies and down against just 4. The biggest gain was against the AUD (+1.52% mom), building further on gains since the middle of last year. The biggest decline was against the JPY (-1.58%), though this was after rising 5 out of the last 6 months.

01_indexes

Changelog:

  1. Indexes have been updated to March 2018
  2. CPI deflators and forecasts have been updated for Feburary/March 2018
  3. Trade weights were updated to December 2017. This required revisions to all the indexes from Jan-17 onwards

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Historical Revisionism Redux

P. Gunasegaran demonstrates – yet again – that he doesn’t understand exchange rates (excerpt):

How successive governments impoverished M'sians

A QUESTION OF BUSINESS | At least two ways - both very wrong in the longer term - were used to support the export sector in Malaysia in believing that growth through exports was the right thing for a developing country like Malaysia.

But even though there was economic growth, which means more wealth was created, there was impoverishment too. But how could that be? Basically, those who were rich got richer and those who were poor got poorer.

How did the government achieve export competitiveness over the years? Through two measures. First, they reduced the number of things Malaysians generally could buy by going for a policy which weakened the ringgit. And two, they imported poverty by allowing the uncontrolled import of cheap labour.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Stuck in the Middle

The Deputy PM thinks middlemen are the culprits for high prices (excerpt):

Zahid: Higher prices of goods and services the work of 'cartels', not GST

BAGAN DATUK: The rise of market prices were not caused by the Goods and Services Tax (GST) but the actions of middlemen and “cartels” who manipulated prices for their own gain.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also chairman of the National Cost of Living Action Council, said these middlemen and cartels also made things worse by accusing the government of raising the prices of goods and services when it was they who were the ones responsible.

“They blame GST as the main cause, but these cartels and middlemen are the ones who, before this, avoided paying the Sales and Service Tax (SST). It is because of these people that the government decided to (do away with SST and) implement GST….

…Zahid said it was true that there had been an increase in production, import, foreign exchange costs at one time, but this was due to the fact that the ringgit had fallen against the dollar.

However, he said, the ringgit had now risen against the Greenback but the prices of goods had yet to come down.

Despite the “cartels/middlemen” explanation being a fairly widespread belief, I’d like to see some evidence for it first. While the DPM might be using this to deflect the perfectly valid point that GST is not wholly and certainly not primarily responsible for higher prices, I don’t see it reflected in any of the (patchy) census data on distributive trade. If this was true, profits (value-added, less wages) in the wholesale/retail sector should be rising. Instead, margins have been declining, largely due to higher wage bills.

That last point is mostly wrong too. Based on the interaction between prices and the exchange rate, there has been very little passthrough of exchange rate movements into domestic prices, which implies margins shrank when the Ringgit declined, and just reverted to “normal” as the Ringgit regained value. This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been isolated cases of direct passthrough into prices (I’m looking at you, Apple), but there hasn’t been a general wave in that direction. Moreover, the exchange rate should be completely irrelevant for prices of services.

What disturbs me most about this, however, is that the last two times I’ve heard this sentiment being publically aired by a top government official was in Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Both were cases of hyperinflationary environments, and governments who’d prefer to scapegoat rather than address the real causes of price increases.

Would addressing distributional inefficiencies and monopolies/oligopolies reduce prices? If they exist, quite possibly. However, any such improvement would be a temporary one-off reduction in the price level, and won’t change underlying inflation.

Monday, April 2, 2018

More on Seafood Prices

Nobody can deny inflation in food prices, and seafood is a major contributor to that. The biggest reason behind seafood price inflation is a supply-demand mismatch – the world as a whole is eating more than the seas can provide, with obvious long term consequences unless this is managed. But China is a major factor behind that mismatch (excerpt):

China's Real Offshore Disaster
There isn't much left for a million tons of light oil to kill.

Last Sunday's sinking of an Iranian oil tanker 180 miles off the coast of Shanghai certainly looks like an environmental disaster. Depending on how many of the ship's 1 million barrels of condensate were released into the ocean and not burned off, the accident could end up being one of the biggest oil spills in half a century. The irony? Even that wouldn't represent the biggest disaster to befall the area.

The fact is, thanks to massive overfishing in China's territorial waters, there isn't much marine life left to kill in the disaster zone. According to He Pemin of Shanghai Ocean University, those waters have been so denuded over the last three decades that fishermen "normally bypass the area and go further afield for a bigger catch."

It's a dark twist to an accident that has the potential to send oil drifting to the California coast. And it should encourage the Chinese government to rethink how it manages its marine environment. The need is urgent: China's hunger for seafood is fast outstripping its domestic resources. Consequences already loom, including food inflation, a depleted environment for the hundreds of millions of Chinese who live along the coast, and rising international tensions.

Chinese fishermen traditionally concentrated on inland and coastal waters. But as the economy opened up in the late 1970s and private fishing fleets grew in size, those areas were quickly fished out.

Seeing the industry as a jobs creator, local officials were loath to restrain it. The national government didn't do much better. Instead of crafting policies to sustain inshore fishing (by controlling catches and combating massive coastal pollution, for starters), authorities offered subsidies and technical support to help fishermen venture further offshore into the East China Sea. (The money also supported other "blue economy" industries such as shipbuilding and offshore drilling.) In 1985, just 10 percent of China's catch was netted in those far-flung fishing grounds; by 2000, it was 35 percent.

The shift was driven by a massive jump in China's seafood consumption as its population has become more affluent. Growth has averaged 7.9 percent annually since the late 1970s. Chinese seafood consumption increased 50 percent in just the last decade, to 62 million tons annually. That accounts for nearly two-thirds of global growth.

Lesson 1: Unless we do something to manage fisheries on a sustainable basis, the situation will only get worse.

Lesson 2: Politicians can say what they like, but no amount of fiddling with taxes or the local economy will make a difference. This is a global problem and needs a global solution.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Effective Exchange Rate Indexes: February 2018 Update

The NEER and REER page has been updated, as has the Google Docs version.

Summary

This update is a little late for a few reasons. First, I was travelling the whole of last week, and simply hadn’t the time. Second, there were major updates to a few of the CPI series (changes of base years), including the one for Malaysia, that required rejigging the spliced deflator series.

On the whole though, the picture hasn’t changed much since December 2017. The Ringgit was still climbing against most currencies, which resulted in a continued increase in all of the indexes. On the year, the nominal broad index was up 5.3% in January and 6.4% in February, while the real broad index was up 3.9% and 6.3%. The picture was broadly the same across all the sub-indexes.

On a bilateral basis, the Ringgit was up against 14 currencies in January and 11 in February (relative to the 15 that make up the broad index). The biggest gains were against regional currencies, with the only net declines over Jan-18-Feb-18 recorded against the EUR, JPY and CNY.

01_indexes

Changelog:

  1. Indexes have been updated to February 2018
  2. CPI deflators and forecasts have been updated for January/Feburary 2018
  3. CPI deflator data revisions were required for Malaysia, Thailand, and the Phillippines. This required revisions to the indexes from Jan-17 onwards

Thursday, February 15, 2018

4Q17 GDP: Momentum Slowing

A quick note on yesterday’s GDP report. The date brought the growth numbers for 2017 to a gratifyingly satisfying conclusion (log annual change and annualised seasonally adjusted quarterly change; 2010 constant prices):

01_gdp

GDP expanded at a 5.8% clip (in log terms; 5.9% in percentage terms), just a little lower than the 6.1% log change seen in 3Q17. That brings full year growth to 5.7% (log) and 5.9% (percentage), the best performance since 2014.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Food Stamps Don’t Work, Redux

My original take here. From a Tweetstorm I read this morning:

Worth reading the whole thread.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

BNM Watch: On The Move

The OPR was hiked 25bps today to 3.25% (excerpt):

Monetary Policy Statement

At the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meeting today, Bank Negara Malaysia decided to increase the Overnight Policy Rate (OPR) by 25 basis points to 3.25 percent. The floor and ceiling rates of the corridor for the OPR are correspondingly raised to 3.00 percent and 3.50 percent respectively.

The global economy has strengthened further, with growth becoming more entrenched and synchronised across regions…Global growth is projected to experience a faster expansion in 2018. In this environment, risks to the global growth outlook are more balanced, pointing towards continuity in the current phase of global economic expansion.

For the Malaysian economy, latest indicators reaffirm the strength in exports and domestic activity. Looking ahead, the strong growth momentum is expected to continue in 2018, sustained by the stronger global growth and positive spillovers from the external sector to the domestic economy….

…However, the trajectory of headline inflation will be dependent on future global oil prices which remain highly uncertain. Underlying inflation, as measured by core inflation, remains moderate….

…With the economy firmly on a steady growth path, the MPC decided to normalise the degree of monetary accommodation. At the same time, the MPC recognises the need to pre-emptively ensure that the stance of monetary policy is appropriate to prevent the build-up of risks that could arise from interest rates being too low for a prolonged period of time. At the current level of the OPR, the stance of monetary policy remains accommodative….

After the strong signal given at the last MPC meeting in November, BNM fulfilled market expectations with this move. Up to last week, I think the bond markets were still in two minds whether this would happen, having only half priced it in. Regardless, foreign investors were in no doubt, judging by the moves the Ringgit has made over the past couple of months.

Personally, I think this is the right move – the data certainly supports a tightening of monetary conditions, even if the appreciation of the Ringgit makes it appear unnecessary. The problem with playing the expectations game is that if you don’t follow through, the markets might reverse course and make it necessary again. For practical purposes, monetary conditions started tightening right after the release of the last statement, and not raising the OPR today would have undone that. Borrowers will have to start paying more on their loans from next month, but that would be the only difference. Granted, that’s maybe RM2 billion or more off the table in private consumption and investment, but that’s in the context of a faster growing economy.

Speculation will now shift to if and when there will be another hike. Nothing in the statement suggests one is on the cards for the moment, but the “pre-emptive” line at the end indicates BNM will be keeping an eye out for an acceleration of loan demand. I think the data would support a further move in the second half of the year, though that might be skewed by spending around the general election, which I think will probably come in March. Provisionally, I’m not expecting any consideration of further tightening until September at the earliest.

Negative Income Tax: Someone’s Finally Trying It

I came across this on Twitter last night – Mauritius is taking on the challenge of implementing a negative income tax (excerpt):

Negative Income Tax scheme: Beneficiaries receive first payment

GIS - 27 November, 2017: The first payment of Negative Income Tax (NIT) allowance to beneficiaries was effected on Friday 24 November 2017 at the seat of the Mauritius Revenue Authority (MRA) in Port Louis in the presence of the Prime Minister, Minister of Home Affairs, External Communications and National Development Unit, Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Mr Pravind Kumar Jugnauth.

Cheques were handed over symbolically to some thirteen beneficiaries under the NIT scheme which came into effect as from 1st July 2017. Out of the 21 800 applications received, 12 100 persons have already benefitted from an allocation. The NIT consists of a financial support from the Government to be effected by the MRA on a quarterly basis to employees whose basic salary is less than or equal to Rs 9 900 monthly.

Before anybody sneers at this, Mauritius has a GDP per capita roughly on par with Malaysia, and the scheme will benefit something like 25% of the workforce. The support isn't much – roughly USD30 per month for the lowest income category – but it's the principle that counts.

One obvious drawback is that only those in paid employment are eligible (full criteria here), which leaves out the informal sector and those out of work for other reasons (such as disability). I don't know Mauritius so well that I can say whether that's good or bad. Nevertheless, here's hoping someone's tracking the outcomes of this policy. That would be one piece of research worth waiting for.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Property Taxes: There’s a Right Way, and There’s a Wrong Way

Caught this yesterday (excerpt):

Selangor, Penang tax hike woes

ONE part of Pakatan Harapan's manifesto covers cost of living and taxes, and points fingers at federal government policy.

If they are serious about reducing the cost of living and taxes, they should first look at Selangor and Penang.

On Dec 26, the Selangor Mentri Besar's Office scrambled to respond to my assertion that property-related taxes are the main cause of increase in cost of living in Selangor.

Datuk Seri Azmin Ali refused to accept my assertion and blamed Putrajaya and the goods and services tax (GST) for the increase….

…There was a significant increase in cost of living between 2008 and 2011, years before the implementation of GST.

Moreover, the initiatives rolled out in 2016 by the state government were focused on rural residents. The MB's Office said several hundred thousand owners of kampung houses were given exemption on assessments.

But what about urban residents in the cities and towns where over 80% of Selangoreans reside?

The residents in apartments and urban dwellings have had to pay higher quit rent and assessment taxes since 2008?

This is where most of the increase in cost of living happens.

Most Selangor residents live in cities and towns and have been significantly affected by the rapid rise in property prices and rental because of the state government's policy.

I’m not going to play politics here. Property related taxes have increased across most states, and in my opinion probably a bigger factor in the increased cost of living than anything else. We can all argue over who is at fault, but ultimately, nothing much will change unless fundamental reforms are carried out.

Public Transport Pass

I support this (excerpt):

Time to introduce a RM100 public transportation pass in the Klang Valley

In October 2017, I had written about the lack of an increase in the ridership of the LRT, MRT and KTM Komuter despite the billions of Ringgit of investment poured into new projects.[1] The recently released Quarter 3 2017 rail statistics[2] by the Ministry of Transportation confirmed my fears that the LRT and MRT ridership spike in July and August 2017 due to the half-price fares were only temporary....

...The drop in the daily ridership on the LRT and MRT clearly shows that passengers are price sensitive. This is why it is necessary to introduce an affordable monthly public transportation pass to allow passengers to have unlimited rides on the LRT, MRT, Monorail and Rapid KL buses as a way to increase public transportation usage. Rapid used to have an RM150 monthly travel pass for the LRT but this was eliminated as part of the LRT fare hike in Dec 2015.

Pakatan Harapan has proposed in our alternative budget to introduce a RM100 unlimited travel monthly public transportation pass. I am confident that with the introduction of this pass, public transportation usage especially on the LRT, MRT and Rapid buses will increase significantly, perhaps even beyond the daily ridership figures set in August 2017 when the LRT and MRT fares were reduced by 50%.

Public transport almost never makes money, but there are large positive externalies to increasing utilisation. From reduced congestion to lower environmental costs, not to mention spreading the large upfront cost of building transport networks across more users, there are good arguments for maximising the use of available capacity. There's also the incentive trade-off between using cars as opposed to public transport - because of the lower convenience, public transport has to be priced lower to compete effectively. Lower or flat prices might also increase revenue, depending on the shape of the demand curve. So this makes sense, and is at least worth some study.