Friday, June 11, 2010

The Great Economic Experiment

For a while I was convinced that Fidesz's action plan is just the result of confusion and lack of time, that's the reason behind its incoherence. However, probably it is a more refined action to achieve the elbow room they wanted. As one of their basic slogans in the campaign was the end of "traditional economics" they decided to prove how problematic its basic assumptions are. This is an experiment, an empirical test of the Ricardian equvivalence, or at least one of its underlying basic assumptions, that rational actors always presuppose later developments and act accordingly. (In its basic form if the government finances today's debt with borrowing taxpayers will expect tax hikes later and therefore they begin to save instead of spending. However, in a generalized form it suggests that rational actors act not only according immediate advantages and benefits but they consider costs occurring on a longer time-horizon.)

What did the Hungarian government in the last few days? They announced an incoherent package of measures with the aim to keep deficit at 3,8% of GDP and simultaneously boost growth through competitiveness. One that probably won't help to keep deficit under control with measures (see my previous post) and contains measures controversial in itself, like the introduction of flat-tax with countermeasures defending lower income categories from losing form their net income due to higher effective tax rates. One very definite countermeasure was the announcement of higher minimal wages. (According to rough calculations the necessary raise would be around 23% plus at about 4% in higher social contributions after the new gross wage.)

What happened after the government made this plan public? The package as a whole was praised by analysts in Hungary while received with more doubt outside the country. (It is worth to note that one cannot easily imagine more rational actors in economics than financial analysts.) The former category can expect a significant material advantage from the new tax system as they certainly belong to higher income categories, the latter are not affected as they are paid under a different tax regime. Up to this moment no financial analyst exposed the controversial nature of the tax "reform", especially regarding its effects on competitiveness. Neither was doubt raised regarding financiability of the tax cuts, even though the offsetting measures are vague and in their present form unrealistic. Nothing was heard from the associations of entrepreneurs, whose companies will be subjected to these changes. (And entrepreneurs should be rational actors, by virtue of being entrepreneurs.)

However, what we are looking at is contradicting to Ricardian equivalence and its basic underlying assumptions. Although it is probable that competitiveness will be suppressed by the higher wages leading to a result contrary to the will of everyone (and certainly affecting companies' profits), the hole in the budget will be filled with tax hikes affecting income later, people for whom the new tax system will bring immediate benefits support it, despite the prospect of negative measures later. They are not acting according to the Ricardian equivalence.

I think the whole action plan is an empirical test of economics. If the government can expose analysts and entrepreneurs neglecting the basics of rational expectations they can claim that the "traditional" economics really failed and ask for their well deserved higher deficit target. Why bother with the reaction of "rational markets" when they are proven to be irrational?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An action plan of indecision? Updated

Hungary's new prime minister, Viktor Orbán announced yesterday his "action plan" a set of measures seen as the guidelines of the government's economic policy. The announcement followed days of insecurity caused by remarks of Fidesz and government officials on the budget deficit this year, frequently using phrases "like Greece", "default" etc. This debacle (retrospectively Fidesz politicians - speaking only from behind the defense line of anonimity - hinted to a conscious strategy, but the party has a tendency to reinterpret every failure afterwards into a plan of a mastermind, therefore it is less and less credible with time) signaled the abandonment of earlier ideas and the realignment of the possible policies.

Anyway, the prime minister delivered a very conscious speech conveying the will and energy to achieve his goals and announcing 29 measures. It had an immediate effect, it was certainly a good show of an illusionist, especially among Hungarian analysts, whose obsession with flat-tax is almost a medical case. Many of them hurried to hail the greatest structural change of the last two decades etc. And the impression in general was certainly favorable, on the surface the new policy seemed to be really well thought. Nevertheless, if scrutinized with a more critical eye - without allowing oneself to be deluded by the flat-tax - it is a surprisingly empty and astonishingly not elaborated package.

The starting point was that the government has to achieve a budget deficit as high as 3,8% of GDP this year, because the IMF and the EU (espacially the latter) would not let them to raise th target to 5-7%. However, Fidesz promised a "tax revolution" in the campaign (although it was clear that they couldn't decide whether to opt for flat-tax or a family-tax system, copying the French model) and tax cuts for enterprises. After they lost a lot of room for manoeuvre when they had to accept the lower deficit figures they still stuck to this idea and decided to find other sources of revenues to offset the income losses. The solution was imaginative but not quite convincing: the banks will pay a half of their profit to the budget in order to allow them to relax the tax burden on individuals and on other companies. Besides the 16% falt tax combined with the family tax the prime minister announced the reduction of the wage costs in the public sector, reduction of tax on companies' profit (at least for those who has a profit less than 500 million HUF) from 19% to 10%, complete freedom of distilling spirits for individuals (really!) a freeze of public services fees for the population, a ban on mortgage based fx-loans and some symbolic measures, for example reducing costs in the state sector and subventions to political parties.

However coherent it seems (and the underlying idea, even if its is horrific, is really coherent) it do not need a Nobel-prize winner to discover how scratchy it is nd how much it lacks the essence of political action: decision on some core issues and acceptance of confrontation. First of all it is still not a decision to fuse two tax systems based on very different principles, it is the opposite: an escape from decision. Considering this state of affairs it is not quite surprising that today none ion the government was capable to give information on details. There will be something with a 16% flat tax rate and with tax breaks and credits for families raising children, but to wich amount the latter will extend, what will happen with the so-called "szuperbruttó" in the present system ("super-gross calculation" an effective extension of the tax base, it taxes the ammount of the social contribution as if they would be part of the income itself) and the tax rebate. Even more serious issue is the problem of "lower wages". The present system - due to a very extended tax rebate - lays only 16% tax on a monthly income of 230000 Huf well over average and median wage in Hungary. The elimination of this part of the system was announced - in two years - which at first sight will effectively mean a tax hike for everyone with 230000 Huf or lower income. There were hints that the government will ensure that no one pay more, but there seem to be no other solution than to raise wages, but an effective 20% wage raise will not deliver one if the most sacred result of as flat tax system (at least in the eyes of its adherents): lower labour costs. (On the idea that it will create incentives to present previously untaxed incomes for the tax authority you can see my earlier post. The very theory used to support the flat tax contradicts to this idea. There is no evidence, ECE countries with flat tax are more infected with black and grey economic activity than Hungary, according to every estimate.)

Similarly vague is the idea of the reduction of costs of public services. It is even not clear whether this applies to the entire public sector, only to certain parts of it or to the state owned companies? While the prime minister mentioned 120 billion Huf as saving for this year and referred to it as 15% reduction of these costs, the only concrete measure was a 48 billion reduction at state owned companies. (But it is tricky as it is the 15% of the wage bill for the entire year while the cuts will come in the second half. The result: 25-30% for six months!) Whether public instiutions, ministries, authorities or schools, the health care sector etc. will bore the remaining 72 billion or just a part of it it is still not clear.

The freeze on public services prices was declared to be temporary, until the government negotiates something with the respective companies. However, price control will soon be reestablished. The bank tax announced without preliminary consultations. Even the method of "liberating" spirit distillation is not clear., it is at the moment not more then a wish list without calculations. And it is based on a very tight calculation, without any reserves and always counting on the most optimistic scenario. If the bank tax falls of or fails to deliver the necessary amount, if growth will remain sluggish the deficit will soar up and austerity will settle to other sectors. Moreover, even the real extent of tax cuts is not clear, because no one knows the amount of family tax breaks and rebate and the future of the present tax rebates. Therefore no realistic calculation of the effect of the package on the budget is possible. (And no structural reforms - some percentage points relaxation in an already almost flat-tax system is far from being one, across the board cuts in the public sector can also be seen hardly as such,Gyurcsány would have been ridiculed by the same "analysts" with a similar action plan who are now praising Orbán.) We have seen the sorcerer, the white rabbit was fat and juicy but it evaporated in a day....

However, the direction is clear: redistribution of wealth from the lower strata to the rich (the very rich) and from the poorest regions to the richest quarters of Budapest. It's negative effect on local economies is predictable as purchasing power will dissipate (while the positive effects of creating jobs is doubtful at best, the recovery could easily turn out to be fragile with the austerity programs of EU governments, the most far-sighted ideas of the Fidesz program were postponed - investment into energy efficiency, for example - or even thrown off etc.) and already huge differences in the country will grow. Well, the show was excellent, but the road is still covered by thick fog.

Update: So, we have a plan with the aim to keep under control the budget deficit and boost competitiveness through lower labour costs. But the secretary of state in the ministry of national economy responsible for tax issues announced today that the "szuperbruttó" will be eliminated and no one will be worse off in the new system (i.e. no one will have lower net income) than in the old one. No details, of course.

But even in this very basic and vague form the plan seems to be way off the announced aims. If the government will pressure companies to raise wages it will negatively affect labour costs without an equivalent raise in productivity. At the moment the average wage of 56500 physical workers in the agriculture is 109746 HUF. They would need a 12,2% higher wage in order to have the same level of net wage. But it would mean an additional 3,5% in higher social contributions as well. Similarly, the (non-existent) average industrial worker (441900 people) will need a 7% rise in wages what would mean an additional 2% in social contributions. The 195900 workers in the commercial sector will need a 10,7% higher salary, an additional 2,9% burden in social contribution. Moreover, the state employs hundreds of thousands of public sector workers and teachers, nurses etc. who also will have to enjoy the benefit of higher salaries in order to offset negative effects - if the secretary of state mentioned above told the truth. 3,5% raise for average employees in the health care sector (148300 people), 13% for physical workers in the same sector (90200 people), 10% for physical workers in the educational sector etc. Certainly more than 30 billion HUF just in order to compensate them real wages still declining. It is still not a well thought plan, just improvisation.