Regime Uncertainty, the Balkans and the weak US recovery

Today I have been in Oslo, Norway for client meetings. The topic on the agenda is Central and Eastern Europe and particularly the investment climate in South Eastern Europe. That gives me reason to discuss a favourite topic of mine – “regime uncertainty – as defined by Robert Higgs – and why the present lacklustre recovery in the US economy is unlikely in anyway to be related to such regime uncertainty.

As an economist who have been working professionally with Emerging Markets for more than I decade I know about regime uncertainty. In fact I think you to some extent can define an Emerging Markets economy as an economy where regime uncertainty is a dominant factor in the economy.

Robert Higgs basically defines regime uncertainty as a lack of protection of property right and a lack of respect for the rule of law. This is a serious problem in many Emerging Markets – including in the South Eastern European countries, which has been the focus of my meetings today.

My favourite source for a numerical measure of these uncertainties is the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index. We can use the sub-index for “Rule of Law” in the Economic Freedom Index as a proxy for “regime uncertainty”.

Let’s as an example look at two random South Eastern European countries – Albania and Bulgaria. Here is what Heritage Foundation has to say about the “Rule of Law” in Albania:

Albania still lacks a clear property rights system, particularly for land tenure. Security of land rights remains a problem in coastal areas where there is potential for tourism development. Although significant reforms of the legal system are underway, the courts are subject to political pressures and corruption. Protection of intellectual property rights is weak. Albania is a major transit country for human trafficking and illegal arms and narcotics.”

And similarly for Bulgaria:

“Respect for constitutional provisions securing property rights and providing for an independent judiciary is somewhat lax. The judicial system is unable to enforce property rights effectively, and inconsistent application of the rule of law discourages private investments. Despite legal restrictions, government corruption and organized crime present a threat to Bulgaria’s border security.”

In my view the Heritage Foundation’s description of the lack of respect for the rule of law and property rights in Albania and Bulgaria is pretty close to the reality in these two countries. So there is no doubt that there in both countries are a considerably degree of regime uncertainty.

This heightened level of regime uncertainty very likely is having a considerably negative impact on both foreign direct investments and domestic investments in both countries and therefore on the long-term growth prospects of these countries. Who would for example invest in a sea sight hotel in Albania it might be stolen from you tomorrow or in a year – maybe even with the tacit support of government officials?

Bulgaria and Albania are just two examples of serious regime uncertainty, but many (most!) developing economies and Emerging Markets around the world have serious problems with regime uncertainty. Therefore, as an Emerging Markets economist I find this issue highly relevant. However, I should also stress that I believe regime uncertainty is a supply side phenomenon. Regime uncertainty hampers investment, which reduces the productive capacity of the economy and hence reduces productivity growth, but as aggregate demand in the economy is determined by monetary factors regime uncertainty – in Higgs’ sense – cannot be a demand phenomenon. Yes, regime uncertainty can impact the composition of demand but not aggregate demand in the economy.

The best way to illustrate that regime uncertainty is a supply side phenomenon is to look at three contemporary examples – Venezuela, Argentina and Iran. The regimes in all three countries obviously have very little respect for the rule of law and there is weak protection of property rights in all three countries. However, all three countries also are struggling with high – and to some extent even escalating – inflation. If regime uncertainty were a demand phenomenon then inflation would be low and falling in these countries. It is not.

When I listen to the present political-economic debate in the US many conservative and libertarians economists and commentators (who I would normally tend to agree with) point to regime uncertainty as a key reason for the weak US recovery. Frankly speaking while I acknowledge that there might have been a rise in regime uncertainty in the US – in frank I am certain there has been – I doubt that it in any meaningful way can be said to have had a notable and sizable negative impact on US investment activity. Furthermore, the US economy is showing all the signs of having a demand side problem rather than a supply side problem. If the US economy had undergone a serious negative supply shock then US inflation would has been increasing – as is the case in for example Iran. US inflation is not increasing – rather since 2008 US PCE core inflation has averaged a little more than 1% a year on average.

Furthermore, even though uncertainty about the outlook for US tax rules have increased and Obamacare likely have had a negative impact on the overall investor sentiment in the US it would be rather foolish to claim that property rights are not well-protected in the US.  This is what Heritage Foundation has to say about the rule of law in the US:

“Property rights are guaranteed, and the judiciary functions independently and predictably. Serious constitutional questions related to government-mandated health insurance have been under consideration in the courts. Corruption is a growing concern as the cronyism and economic rent-seeking associated with the growth of government have undermined institutional integrity.”

Even though Heritage Foundation highlights some negative factors the US can hardly be said to be Bulgaria and Albania. In fact the US is in the very top in the world when it comes to protection of property rights and the respect for the rule of law. I therefore doubt that US multinational companies like Apple of Coca Cola are seriously concerned about the rule of law in the US when you take into account that these companies have been seeing there strong sales and income growth in Emerging Markets like China, India, Russia and Brazil.

In fact I could understand if these US companies would be concerned about the present regime uncertainty in China in connection with the ongoing leadership change in the Chinese communist party, the crackdown on freedom of speech in Russia under president Putin’s leadership, the scaling back of economic reforms in India or the ad hoc nature of changes to taxation of inward investments into Brazil.

So while I certainly remain concerned about the regulatory developments in the US over the past decade (yes it started well before Obama became president) I doubt that the present lacklustre recovery can be blamed on these problems. The reason for the lacklustre recovery is rather monetary uncertainty rather than regime uncertainty. Since 2008 US monetary policy has moved away from a ruled based regime to a highly discretionary and to some extent highly unpredictable regime. That is the problem.

So yes, US companies are likely worried about regime uncertainty, but it likely worries about regime uncertainty in China or Brazil rather than regime uncertainty in the US.

A simple way to illustrate this is to look at the Heritage Foundation’s score for protection of property rights in some of the countries mentioned in this blog post. Heritage Foundation considers a score between 80 and 100 to be a “free country”. It is very clear from the graph that investors should worry (a lot) about the protection of property rights in Albania, Bulgaria or in the so-called BRIC economies, but I doubt that many international investors have sleepless nights over the whether or not property right will be well-protected in the US.

Finally I am as worried about the rise of interventionist economic policies in the US and in Europe as anybody else, but we should be right for the right reasons. Interventionist economic policies surely reduce the growth prospects in the US and Europe, but that is supply side concerns for the longer run and we can’t blame these failed policies for the weak recovery.

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6 Comments

  1. “the US economy is showing all the signs of having a demand side problem rather than a demand side problem.”

    Don’t you mean its having demand problems rather than supply?

    And… I agree almost 100%. The one thing I would note is that conservatives emphasize (rightly so, IMO) the investment/jobs link, rather than government largesse/jobs as a main point of politics. More investment certainly can’t hurt, but you’re right it isn’t going to do that much without appropriate monetary policy.

    Reply
  2. Lars
    The BRIC countries do not fare well on the HF-EF Index, but still they are among the preffered destinations of FDI. The only reason for that is that these countries have large and growing consuming populations (over the last 7 years, for example, Brazil has added 40 million people to that category.)
    So, there´s a trade-off, at least for now. But at one point the authorities in the BRIC´s will “cross the line”…

    Reply
    • Marcus, that is correct, but as you know better than anybody else a country like Brazil has a much lower level of investment than could have been the case if the government gave up it’s interventionist and protectionist polices. Brazilian trend RGDP growth is probably 4% or so, but it could easily be much higher if the Brazilian economy was opened up to competition and investments.

      Reply
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