How Russia Became a Market Economy
Do not let the improbable title put you off from reading this fascinating volume. Åslund does not take his own title too seriously: large stretches of the book are about how Russia did not become a market economy.
Brookings Institution, Washington, 1995, xviii + 378 pp., $39.95 (cloth), $16.95 (paper).
Even if things begin to look up toward the end, this is mostly a story of missed opportunities. Only privatization and price liberalization emerge as unambiguous leaps toward a market economy. In other areas—the failure to control inflation, the disastrous evolution and final collapse of the ruble zone, the collapse of trade between former Soviet republics, the uneven and chaotic liberalization of agriculture and energy, the takeoff of crime (one of the few growth industries)— reforms took the proverbial two steps forward, one step back (or sometimes even one step forward, two steps back).
Åslund tells how difficult it was to “Do the Right Thing” in the bewildering new world of transition. Few of the actors—Russian reformers, economists, apparatchiks, politicians, interest groups, Western government leaders, multilateral lenders—come out unscathed from Åslund’s withering look back. (Western economic advisers do seem to get off pretty lightly, however…)
Åslund is well known for his insights into the interplay between various actors in a reform process. Such insights are brilliantly on display here as he describes how the countermoves of reformers, interest groups, and the West often led to muddle rather than movement.
The highlight of the considerable drama in the book is the “Mystery of the Missing Momentum” at the beginning of reform. Åslund castigates the reformers themselves, Western governments, the IMF, and the World Bank for failing to seize the moment during the initial euphoria after the failed coup of August 1991. The West hesitated to boldly lend where no loan had gone before. The reformers made fatal compromises, notably giving up control over the central bank. The moment was lost, and Russia went into a detour of extreme inflation and zigzagging reforms. Even if Åslund overdoes the “Blame Game,” it is still an irresistibly sad tale that he tells.
Yet Åslund interjects upbeat notes throughout the story, in the spirit of the title. Thanks to reform, Russians could freely get imported consumer goods for the first time in their lives, if they could find the money. Most prices were free, and lines disappeared. Macroeconomic stabilization fitfully made progress. Privatization occurred on an unexpectedly massive scale. Entrepreneurial energies were released.
The Russian economy is once again looking up as this review is being written, even if both politics and economics remain volatile. You could not find a better guide to the long and winding road Russia has followed to get here than the always engaging Anders Åslund.
Winds of Change: Economic Transition in Central and Eastern Europe
Daniel Gros and Alfred Steinherr
Longman, London and New York, 1995, 544 pp., $60.95 (cloth), $31.95 (paper).
Few subjects have attracted as much economic talent in so short a time as the transition of the former Soviet bloc to market- oriented economics. This reflects not only the historical significance of the issue but also its professionally challenging character. Analysis of the transition has forced economists to face up to the myriad assumptions implicit in the Western economic paradigm. As a result, the outpouring of published material has tended to be fairly focused and analytical. Winds of Change is the first attempt I am aware of to provide an approachable yet professional overview of the subject.
This well-thought-out book discusses the starting point of the transition in a useful and informative section on the nature and failures of Soviet central planning. The book provides an overview of the main transition topics, such as the scope and timing of reform, liberalization, stabilization, privatization, and financial sector reform, and discusses these issues from the perspective of various countries (eastern Germany, the Visegrad countries, the former Yugoslavia, and the states of the former Soviet Union—especially Russia, where the authors’ convictions surface more unequivocally than elsewhere). The authors also review the current and future relations of the transition economies with the European Union.
Gros and Steinherr succeed in making the subject interesting to a wide audience. The main text is accessible to the general reader, partly because of the “political economy” current that flows through it, partly because of the mix of easy analysis and empiricism, and partly because of occasional light touches (for example, a cartoon of Karl Marx admonishing, like any economist whose ideas have not panned out, that “it was just an idea!”). But the hard core of analysis will be apparent to specialists.
The authors clearly strive to be nonpolemi- cal and to provide a balanced presentation. However, a perspective that might be characterized as “continental European” rather than Anglo-Saxon is apparent. For instance, while the market orientation is manifest, it may strike some readers as somewhat circumspect.
In this vein, in the discussion of the choice of exchange rate regimes, the authors make clear their preference for fixed rates (except for capital account transactions for which a floating dual market rate is advocated in preference to capital controls). While this is not surprising—it would probably be endorsed by most economists for the early stabilization phase of the transition, given suitable policies and levels of international reserves—what is surprising is the limited discussion of the floating rate option, which has been strongly advocated by some and applied successfully in several countries (for instance, Albania).
The authors’ discussion of privatization is another manifestation of a European approach. On one level, the perspective is market-oriented, as the authors support large- scale, “give-away” privatization. Moreover, they argue that such privatizations could compensate workers for losses in real wages, while avoiding the indexation arrangements that have come to bedevil policy formulation in some countries, notably Poland. On another level, however, the authors are more ambivalent, notably, regarding the privatization of larger enterprises. Voucher privatization and stakeholder buyouts are viewed with skepticism—unless adequate institutional controls are in place—because of their implications for corporate governance. The arm’s-length relationship to simple market solutions comes more to the fore, however, in some of the appendices. They explore more egalitarian (and ostensibly potentially more efficient) ways of distributing profits, and examine whether the failure of labor-managed firms in Yugoslavia reflected a failure of design or a case of good design being applied in inappropriate circumstances. In the same vein, the chapter on financial sector reform argues that universal banking offers the only practicable way to finance the investment needs of larger enterprises. While these views all have their place in the second-best world of mid-transition, one can ask whether the authors’ ambivalence on some of these issues—which is in line with the attitude of reactionary forces that have emerged in Eastern Europe—might not help foster third- or fourth-order solutions.
This second-best perspective is not, however, the dominant one. The book, instead, is about the first five years of transition, which was a difficult time of rapid change. This is captured by the cover, which shows a Stalinist-style structure being blown asunder by the fiery winds of change, the whole dominating a peasant woman sowing the seeds of change in the foreground. Prospects today, however, seem to be more for the reverse: better times of too little structural change. Inflation is being tamed; growth is rebounding; external positions have strengthened; and countries worry more about capital inflows than outflows. At the same time, the glaringly uneven distribution of the benefits of transition has undermined the sense of common purpose of the early years and prompted a leftward shift in the politics and a marked slowing in the pace of structural reform. In that setting, this book will remain pertinent as a primer not only on the first five years of transition but also on the structural agenda for the next five.
Privatization & Economic Performance
Matthew Bishop, John Kay, Colin Mayer (editors)
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994, xiii + 389 pp., $65 (cloth), $24 (paper).
One of the most significant events of the Thatcher years was the sell-off of large parts of the United Kingdom’s public sector to private operators. This book is a compendium of 18 articles by internal and external observers of the United Kingdom’s privatization process. Many articles were written in the heat of privatization and provide a wealth of detail and historical insights. A few, with the perfect vision that comes with hindsight, assess the developments from the perspective of the mid-1990s.
The collection describes the failures as well as the successes, public and political opposition to privatization, and the problems that persist in some privatized sectors. It will thus provide material for both sides of the privatization debate, which continues to rage inside and outside the United Kingdom, and in countries as diverse as China, India, Turkey, and the transition economies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The first two chapters—”Privatization: Principles, Problems, and Priorities” (Michael Beesley and Stephen Littlechild) and “Privatization Policies and Public Enterprise: A Survey” (Simon Domberger and John Piggot) were written in the mid-1980s and deal with the fundamental question of whether public enterprises should be privatized at all. These two papers review the literature comparing the performance of public and private industries and seek criteria for deciding what should be a candidate for privatization and why. They discuss the need for restructuring certain sectors as well as the importance of regulation and competition policy. They also examine the “non-commercial” obligations of public enterprises. Although none of this is new, the arguments and evidence presented are still highly relevant to countries now tackling privatization and are also useful in understanding results in the United Kingdom.
The next half-dozen chapters deal with results (as of the time the chapters were written) of completed privatizations: electricity, British Airways, the water industry, the gas industry, British Steel, and refuse collection. The following three cover sectors still “open for discussion.” In “Delivering Letters: Should It Be Decriminalized?” the authors, Saul Estrin and David de Meza, develop an economic model that suggests this is an area where open competition may harm, rather than help, the consumer. Two other chapters discuss the railways and the UK Government’s search (after disposing of some assets and operations) for ways to privatize the core activities of this loss-making sector and introduce competition.
The last part of the book includes pieces that try to identify the “winners” and “losers” in the United Kingdom’s privatization experience to date. “Privatization and Domestic Consumers” (John Winward) concludes that competition has not yet had a significant impact in most sectors, and that many of the efficiency gains seen in regulated sectors would probably have occurred even without privatization. However, a more “open” regulatory approach has ensured that efficiency gains are passed on to consumers, who have also benefited (on the whole) from regulation of quality.
“Popular Capitalism” (Paul Grout) demonstrates that the number of British adults owning equity in companies increased dramatically from 1979 to 1992, but that the share of the total equity market held directly by individuals actually fell during that period. The author concludes that, in terms of actual enterprise control, real benefits come not from “popular” capitalism but from employee ownership. Evidence supporting this view is presented in “Management Buy-outs and Privatization,” by Mike Wright, Steve Thompson, and Ken Robbie. In “Privatization and the Labour Market: Facts, Theory and Evidence,” Jonathan Haskel and Stefan Szymanski conclude that, although further research is required, privatization is likely to lead to falling employment and wages.
Another fascinating piece, “What is the Alternative? Ownership Regulation and the Labour Party,” by Francis McGowan, traces the policy changes of the UK Labor Party through the Thatcher years. Not surprisingly, it finds that there has been a major policy shift; “nationalization,” once a critical plank of the party’s platform, is now a dead issue.
The lessons culled by the editors and summarized in the Introduction are that the UK privatization program “missed” many of its objectives because of misunderstandings of the way financial markets work, imperfections in the regulatory system, and structural mistakes. They note that “privatized companies have come to view one of their main objectives as minimizing interventions by the regulator.” However, they conclude that, “even if the UK privatization programme can be faulted in many respects, it has identified the way in which privatizations can be successfully achieved.”
The Confidence Game: How Unelected Central Bankers Are Governing the Changed Global Economy
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1995, 606 pp., $30.
Central banks are often regarded as dull, hidebound institutions or as powerful, behind-the-scenes protectors of establishment interests. Solomon makes the case that they are, in fact, exciting, innovative, and dedicated to promoting the welfare of all sections of society.
The Confidence Game provides a readable account of the major international financial developments of the past twenty years and how central banks reacted to them. The unifying theme is that volatile flows of “stateless capital” led to a series of crises that only central banks were able and willing to deal with. The narrative starts with the stock market crash of 1987, then moves back in time to discuss the anti-inflationary policies introduced in the late 1970s, the debt crisis of the early 1980s, attempts to manage the fall of the US dollar from 1985, and negotiations over common capital-adequacy standards for banks starting in 1986. The lengthy account of these episodes, enlivened by novelistic description and detail, is interwoven with an exposition of some principles of international financial economics.
The book is largely based on the author’s interviews of hundreds of officials who helped shape policy from the 1970s to the early 1980s. Perhaps as a result, no significant revelations are made, nor is the analysis much at variance with that commonly accepted by informed opinion. Rather, the reader enjoys an insider’s view of the policy process and what factors—economic, political, and, in some instances, personal—were perceived at the time to be determining.
This perspective is both the strength and the weakness of the book. It does make clear the interlinkages between the seemingly disparate crises and chronic problems of the 1980s. For instance, central bankers were often made aware of the tension between the desire to achieve sustained low inflation and the need to maintain the soundness of the banking system. One can plausibly argue that the outbreak of banking crises in the United States and Japan was triggered but not necessarily caused by monetary tightening, and, in a number of countries, monetary policy was limited by concern over the financial position of banks. The author’s perspective also brings out how officials of even the most independent central banks felt constrained by political considerations, and how their responses to crises had to be put together ad hoc and were based largely on intuition.
Yet critical distance is lacking. The author’s rhetoric suggests that central bankers are sin- isterly secretive and unaccountable but, in truth, Solomon finds them both sage and heroic. Central bankers generally, and former and current US Federal Reserve Chairmen Volcker and Greenspan in particular, seem to be almost without fault—at worst, they may fail to convince politicians of the dangers that they have correctly foreseen. In contrast, politicians and officials in charge of fiscal policy can do no right: in the short run, they lobby for excessively low interest rates, make destabilizing remarks about exchange rates, and ignore the fragility of the banking sector; in the long run, they connive in generating fiscal “profligacy” in the United States and a “fixation” with fiscal consolidation in Japan.
The book ends with a collection of suggested reforms designed to “civilize” international capital movements and improve policymaking, notably through enhanced cooperation between policymakers in different countries. However, given what is said about the effectiveness of government decision making, the fact that “stateless capital” and the “Court of World Savings” are “without any political regulation” may not be entirely negative, and the prospects for the establishment of a comprehensive and coordinated regulatory system seem dim.
The Confidence Game offers professional economists a useful reminder of the intensity, diversity, and unpredictability displayed by international financial crises. The book also allows a wider audience to appreciate that those nondescript central bankers are largely well-meaning but fallible human beings engaged in a task where errors are magnified and success is measured by its invisibility.
International Monetary Arrangements for the 21st Century
Brookings Institution, Washington, 1994, 171 pp., $28.95 (cloth), $10.95 (paper).
In this excellent book, Barry Eichengreen —economic historian and analyst of current monetary issues—peers into the future looking for the likely evolution of international monetary arrangements. The book contains seven relatively short chapters covering topics as diverse as the historical evolution of international monetary arrangements, the challenges of deep integration, and the theory of optimum currency areas, plus a conclusion. It ends with short comments from Alberto Giovaninni and Toyoo Gyohten, which provide the reader with alternative perspectives on the issues.
The book provides short, lucid, and highly informative discussions of the current state of academic debate on almost all aspects of international monetary arrangements. I can think of no better general introduction to such issues, ranging from the operation of the pre-1914 gold standard to prospects for a European Monetary Union to the options open to countries in choosing an exchange rate policy. Some of the discussions may be somewhat technical for noneconomists, reflecting the complexity of the underlying debate. Most of the book, however, is accessible to all readers and is clearly and informatively written.
The author’s underlying message is that fixed exchange rate systems are becoming less and less sustainable and, hence, that countries are faced with the choice of either having an exchange rate that floats against other currencies or joining a monetary union. The reason for the narrowing of available options is the increasing openness of international capital markets. This has left governments unable to withstand market pressures on exchange rates whether or not the latter correspond to economic fundamentals, as illustrated by the exchange rate crises in Europe in 1992 and 1993. If, on the one hand, a government wishes to have some independent control over monetary policy, it will have to accept a floating exchange rate arrangement. If, on the other hand, it wishes to stabilize its exchange rate with regard to another country, it will need to sacrifice monetary autonomy by joining in a monetary union.
Another way of putting it is in terms of three mutually inconsistent goals of exchange rate regimes: stable rates; open international capital markets; and monetary autonomy. During the pre-1914 era of the gold standard, countries enjoyed open capital markets and stable exchange rates but had limited monetary autonomy. The Bretton Woods period—from the late 1940s to the early 1970s—witnessed stable exchange rates and monetary autonomy but limited capital mobility. The future, in Eichengreen’s view, is one of open capital markets and either monetary autonomy with floating exchange rates or monetary union.
I basically agree with the author, although the argument about needing monetary union to maintain a fixed exchange rate may be slightly overstated (as Alberto Giovaninni implies in his comment). After all, both Austria and the Netherlands, which have clearly subordinated their monetary policy to maintaining a stable exchange rate against the deutsche mark, came through the exchange rate crises of 1992 and 1993 with no significant difficulty. The real choice for the 21st century may be between monetary autonomy with floating exchange rates and a fixed exchange rate with very little monetary autonomy—with most countries choosing flexible exchange rates. In short, this book provides an excellent projection of future exchange rate arrangements, although reality may turn out a touch less dramatic than is envisioned.
Techno-Nationalism and Techno-Globalism
Sylvia Ostry and Richard R. Nelson
Brookings Institution, Washington, 1995, xxvi + 132 pp., $28.95 (cloth), $10.95 (paper).
This short study, well worth perusing, is part of an extensive research program begun in 1992 by the Brookings Institution to investigate policy issues arising from increasing global integration. The present volume focuses on technology development policies and their relationship to the internationalization of business.
Techno-globalism refers to the increasing tendency for international competition to be defined in terms of the development of new technologies. To be successful in this evolving, competitive environment, companies require competence not only in carrying out their own research and development but also in monitoring and absorbing technologies developed in other parts of the world. Partly for this reason, technology today is diffused rapidly, and the lead time for a firm to introduce a new product and to gain subsequent learning-curve advantages is becoming shorter and shorter. This is particularly true because protection of intellectual property is often insufficient to prevent capable competitors from quickly duplicating proprietary technologies. Furthermore, to fully exploit new technologies and pay for their development, firms need ready access to foreign markets, not only through trade but also (and perhaps more important) through direct investment.
Techno-nationalism is a result of national governments’ attempts, through their technology policies, to encourage technology development in a manner that helps indigenous firms to develop new products more quickly and to do so in a way that allows local, rather than foreign, firms to reap the returns. In a world of multinational corporations, such policies are bound to result in endless conflicts, not only between but also within nations—for example, in determining which companies are eligible to participate in government-funded research consortia. (Should a US subsidiary of a Japanese multinational corporation, for instance, be allowed to participate in a consortium financed by the US Government?) In addition, national policies have fostered claims that some countries engage in what might be called techno- mercantilism—that is, essentially closing home markets to technology-intensive imports and discouraging inward direct investment, while home-based companies launch competitive assaults on foreign markets through both exports and foreign investment.
Ostry and Nelson are sensible enough to know that there are no easy solutions to conflicts between techno-nationalism and techno- globalism. The authors suggest that a beginning at conflict resolution might be made by harmonizing technology policies in an effort to at least minimize systemic friction. Because they involve policies that have traditionally been considered purely domestic, negotiations to achieve harmonization admittedly would be extremely difficult to carry out, even in a bilateral context; multilateral negotiations would be mind-boggling. The question, in any case, is whether or not such negotiations, given their difficulties, would result in the desired changes in national behavior. This reviewer is doubtful.
The case of Japan is illustrative. Japan became a major industrial power through policies directed at market exclusion, technology development, and export expansion. And yet the same policies that brought that success do not appear to be serving the country’s future economic interests. In fact, a case could be made that Japan is already falling behind in the technologies that will be most important in decades to come. One might conjecture that harmonization of policies is not what will change Japan’s behavior. Instead, cause and effect might run the other way. Behavioral change in Japan, as well as a willingness to look more favorably on harmonization efforts, will come not through acrimonious negotiations but, rather, from competitive pressures emanating from an increasingly integrated global economy. These pressures today argue for a more open and responsive Japanese business system.
Robert R. Miller
The OECD Jobs Study: Facts, Analysis, Strategies
MOVING TO THE MARKET: THE WORLD BANK IN TRANSITION
Richard W. Richardson and Jonas H. Haral:
The development paradigm is shifting, and the private sector now holds center stage as the lead player in economic development. In recent years the World Bank has been pressed by its member governments to rethink its role in private sector development. This essay reviews the initiatives taken by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation and makes recommendations for the future.
Richard W. Richardsonis currently Senior Advisor to the ODC. Formerly, he served as Director of the Development Department and Economic Advisor of the International Finance Corporation.
Jonas H. Haralzserved as Executive Director of the World Bank for the Nordic Countries and, earlier, as Managing Director of the National Bank of Iceland.
Policy Essay No. 17, 1995
ISBN: 1-56517-023-7 $9.95
Please include $3.00 for shipping/handling and send check to:
Overseas Development Council 1875 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 1012 Washineton, D.C. 20009 • Telephone (202) 234-8701 Facsimile (202) 745-0067
Unemployment: Choices for Europe, Monitoring European Integration
Center for Economic Policy Research
CEPR, London, 1995, 147 pp., £10.
Spanish Unemployment: Is There a Solution?
Olivier Blanchard etal
CEPR, London, 1995, 146 pp., £14.95.
There can be no doubt that the foremost economic problem facing Western Europe today is unemployment. From a “golden age” of very low rates, joblessness began a major increase in the mid-1970s and has never again fallen to its previous levels. The recession of the early 1990s caused unemployment in the European Union to jump once again above 10 percent, reinforcing concerns that measures must be taken to overcome the perceived “eurosclerosis” of the labor market.
In a provocative and readable book, the London-based Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) has made a lively contribution to the voluminous debate on European unemployment. The book challenges orthodox economic conventional wisdom regarding the causes and policy cures for joblessness. A more economically orthodox diagnosis of labor market problems and their cures is found in The OECD Jobs Study, summarized in the OECD’s Facts, Analysis, Strategies paper reviewed here.
The study succinctly covers basic facts of OECD unemployment: countries of the European Union (EU) have seen wages rise steadily, while employment has stagnated. The United States, in contrast, has had steady job growth with stagnating real wages. The study rejects the popular ideas that rising unemployment was caused by technological change or trade liberalization. Rather, labor market rigidities and misguided social policies are the primary culprits. Hiring and firing costs lower employment, as do inflexibilities in the deployment of workers within enterprises. Government policies have unintentionally provided incentives that subsidize unemployment and heavily tax marginal workers. Many countries also lack the entrepreneurial culture that facilitates job creation by small and medium-sized enterprises. The policy recommendations are for far-reaching structural reforms aimed at increasing labor market flexibility, while macroeconomic policy merely provides a stable, low-inflation environment for growth.
In Unemployment: Choices for Europe, several European economists challenge common perceptions on several fronts. They argue that European labor markets are not as stagnant as is commonly thought, with fairly significant job turnover. The difference is that in Europe, people tend to move from one job to another, rather than from a job to unemployment and back, as in the United States. Furthermore, high EU unemployment is not necessarily socially worse than the US system, which condemns many to become “working poor” in dead-end jobs.
While accepting some of the traditional arguments regarding the role of labor market rigidities in perpetuating high unemployment, the CEPR book suggests that “the direct evidence in favour of the benefits of less regulation in practice are decidedly mixed.” An entire chapter is devoted to making the theoretical argument in favor of labor market regulation as a means of addressing other market failures: minimum wages to counteract employer monopsony power; unemployment benefits to replace inadequate insurance markets; and hiring and firing costs to remedy suboptimal investment in firm-specific human capital. In the realm of macroeconomic policy, the book argues that tight monetary policy in defense of the European Monetary System (EMS) in the early 1990s was a “major policy misjudgment,” which exacerbated joblessness. Finally, the authors argue that high unemployment in Europe may reflect a political “equilibrium” in which the median voter is willing to pay the economic costs of labor market rigidities in exchange for a more equitable distribution of income.
With a jobless rate well above 20 percent, it is entirely appropriate that the CEPR should dedicate a study exclusively to Spain’s unemployment problem in Spanish Unemployment: Is There a Solution? Led by influential MIT economist Olivier Blanchard and with the participation of several prominent Spanish and European economists, the Spain study broadly follows the policy line of the CEPR’s pan- European analysis. It provides an excellent review of the pervasive microeconomic distortions afflicting the Spanish labor market, and echoes many other studies in calling for easing labor market rigidities. The macroeconomic diagnosis, in contrast, differs significantly from that of the OECD. First, it advocates looser monetary policy to stimulate aggregate demand and boost employment. The authors acknowledge that this will cause the exchange rate to depreciate, implicitly advocating that Spain leave the EMS. Second, the study argues for national social pacts allowing wages to grow with labor productivity, which would permit continued real wage growth.
The problem with the CEPR’s challenge to conventional economic wisdom is that, while being contrarian makes for an interesting and provocative read, the conventional wisdom is often right. While raising a number of valid objections to the naive laissez-faire story that labor market rigidities are always bad, the alternative put forth by the CEPR authors is less than convincing. Furthermore, in the final analysis, many of the recommendations advanced by the CEPR are not radically different from those of The OECD Jobs Study. Where recommendations do differ—on macroeconomic policy—the CEPR uses the old Phillips curve argument to advocate accepting higher inflation in return for lower unemployment, a view that assumes workers will accept inflation consistently “about one percentage point higher than that which is built into wage settlements.” Twenty years of macroeconomic research have argued that attempts to exploit the Phillips curve tradeoff are ultimately doomed to failure because ever higher inflation will be needed to surprise workers into accepting lower real wages.
Jeffrey R. Franks