A framework for understanding Tunisia’s economic crisis

The Arab Spring started in 2010-11 in Tunisia and until now Tunisia has been highlighted as basically the only country, where the Arab Spring has not ended in disaster. Unfortunately over the last couple of days social unrest and violent confrontation between demonstrators and police have erupted across Tunisia.

I this blog post I will have a look at the Tunisian economy and try to give my take on what is wrong with the economy. There is of course a lot of ground to cover and I can naturally not cover it all in one blog post, but I will try provide an overall framework for how to understand the economic situation in Tunisia.

The economy has been in crisis since 2011

A look at real GDP growth in Tunisia shows that the economy essentially has been suffering since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2010-11.


Prior to 2011 real GDP growth was averaging 4-5% a year – not very impressive given the high growth rate of the labour force and compared to for example Turkey, but nonetheless fairly robust and stable growth.

However, during the 2011 revolution GDP drop in around 2% and after initially recovering in 2011-12 growth have once against slowed significantly and as a consequence the level of real GDP today is more or less unchanged compared to early 2011.

It is hard not to see the latest social unrest and demonstrations in the light of this lackluster economic performance.

AS/AD – a framework for analyzing the crisis

Whenever I want to analyse the economic situation in any country in the world I find it very useful to start out with a simple AS/AD framework. I particularly like the AS/AD framework described in Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok‘s textbook Modern Principles.

This gives us the possibility to think of three kind of shocks to the economy – An Aggregate Demand (AD) shock (essentially a monetary demand shock), a short-run Aggregate Supply (SRAS) shock and a shock to the long-term growth rate of the economy (this is also supply shock). Cowen and Tabarrok terms the long-term growth rate the Solow growth rate after Robert Solow’s famous growth model.

ASAD framework

We can relatively easily apply this model to the Tunisian economy and by looking at the development in inflation and real GDP we can assess whether the development in the economy is driven by supply shocks or demand (monetary) shocks.

Don’t blame monetary policy for the crisis

If the economy is hit by a negative demand shock – either a contraction in the money supply/base or a drop in money-velocity – the AD curve shifts to the left causing both inflation and real GDP to drop and hence therefore also nominal GDP to drop.

The graph below shows the development in real GDP (y), nominal GDP (y+p) and the GDP deflator (p) in Tunisia.


The graph shows that over the past 15 years nominal GDP growth has been relatively stable about 8% and even though there was a slowdown in nominal GDP growth in the period 2008-11 we have since seen a rebound in NGDP growth back to the old trend about 8%, which indicates that there has not been a major negative demand shock to the Tunisian economy.

This is further confirmed by the fact that inflation – measured by the GDP deflator – has in fact shifted upwards since 2010-11. If there had been a negative shock to aggregate demand (AD) we would have expected inflation to drop rather than to increase.

This all indicate that the we cannot blame the the present crisis on monetary policy failure and in fact the Tunisian central bank deserves some credit for – knowingly or not – to have kept nominal GDP on a pretty “straight line”, which in my view certainly is the preferable monetary policy.

NGDP trend

This obviously does not mean that monetary policy is perfect – far from it – and I certainly think that monetary reform is badly needed to ensure that monetary policy failure is avoided in the future, but at least over the past 15 years the Tunisian central bank very broadly speaking has got it more or less right.

The biggest risk as I see it now is that the central bank will be tempted to focus on inflation rather than nominal GDP growth and that that might cause the Tunisian central bank to tighten monetary conditions unduly in response to rise inflation caused by non-monetary factors (a negative supply shock).

The best away of avoiding this is to communicate and explicitly target nominal GDP growth at 8% as de facto has been the policy for the past 15 years. Alternatively the central bank could target nominal wage growth as a proxy for NGDP growth.

The real problem is a real problem

As the discussion above slows the main problem in the Tunisian economy right now is not a lack of demand and monetary policy failure cannot be blamed for the marked slowdown in growth particularly since 2011 and the crisis can therefore not be resolved through an easing of monetary conditions.

As a consequence we have to conclude that the problem is one of real factors (the supply side of the economy) rather than nominal factors (monetary conditions).

The question is, however, whether the the slowdown in growth is permanent or temporary. Said in another way has the crisis been caused by a shift to the left of the Short-run Aggregate Supply (SRAS) or is it rather the Solow growth curve, which has shifted to leftwards?

Whether it is the SRAS curve or the Solow growth curve, which has shifted leftwards does matter in terms of the impact on the economy presently, but only a shift in the Solow growth curve should be expected to cause a permanent decline in the long-term growth rate of the Tunisian economy. Below I will argue that it is a bit of both, but that it likely is short-term shocks that has dominated in the last couple of years.

The horrors of terror 

Tunisia has been hard hit by a number of terror attacks in recent years and particularly in 2015 a number of horrible terror attacks hit Tunisia.

One can think of a terror attack both as a demand shock and a supply shock. Hence, it is obvious that a terror attack will tend to scare tourists away and this is certainly also what we have seen.

This obviously is a negative demand shock. However, as we have seen above the Tunisian central bank has more or less kept nominal GDP growth on a 8% growth path. This means that any drop in tourism revenues will be compensated by higher demand growth other places in the economy. This essentially is a version of the so-called Sumner Critique, which says that if a central banks targets nominal GDP or inflation then it will keep aggregate demand growth stable and this will offset other shocks to aggregate demand.

Obviously Tunisian nominal GDP growth has not been completely stable at 8% and we have indeed seen a drop in NGDP growth over the past year, which do indicate some contraction in aggregate demand growth, which could indicate that the Tunisian central bank has not fully offset the shock to aggregate demand from the drop in tourism revenues, however, if the Tunisian central bank – hopefully – continues de facto to target 8% NGDP the effect on aggregate demand from the tourist attacks should prove to be short-lived.

More worryingly is, however, the fact that the threat of new terror attacks and more generally speaking the rise of islamist extremism is causing a more permanent increase in the cost of doing business in Tunisia.

It is hard to quantify just how big these effects are, but it is notable that real GDP slowed from around 2% to 0% during 2015 so the effects have certainly not been small. Whether they are permanent is another question.

The untold story of the ‘Phosphate Crisis’

When I started to think about the slowdown in the Tunisian economy I initially thought that it mostly was about the terror attracts in 2015 and I was unaware of something, which in reality is at least as important – namely what we could term the ‘Phosphate Crisis’.

This is from an article from Al-Monitor from May 2013:

While phosphate is a pillar of the Tunisian economy, it also represents a social time bomb that nearly ousted the regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2008, when the residents of the mining basin in southwestern Tunisia rose in rebellion, demanding their rights to employment, development and equitable distribution of wealth. Post-2011, protests paralyzing phosphate production became so rampant that the government announced in April the suspension of negotiations with the protesters. It also began a mass media campaign to explain the “phosphate crisis,” stressing these statistics:

The struggles faced by Tunisia’s economy following its 2011 popular uprising have been exacerbated by a decrease in phosphate production, one of the country’s most lucrative resources.
  • Production fell from 8 million metric tons a year to 2.7 million metric tons in 2012.
  • Financial losses reached 3 million dinars ($1.82 million) a day, amounting to a loss of nearly 2 billion dinars ($1.22 billion) in 2011 and 2012.
  • The phosphate company’s workforce tripled from 9,000 to 27,000 workers over the course of three years.

The government even went so far as to threaten to shut down the Gafsa Phosphate Co. The threat baffled [Tunisians], as the company serves as the only operator in mining basin cities and because phosphate is considered a significant source of hard currency in the country. Additionally, the government is currently experiencing several crises of its own, so this sort of escalation would not balance in its favor. Is the threat a political maneuver or an official admission of failure? If the latter is true, does the admission pave the way for the state to give up on “reforms” in the phosphate sector?

Even though the official rhetoric considers the Jan. 14, 2011, Revolution, which toppled Ben Ali, a societal revolution whose flame has been sparked inside the mining sector, all of the post-revolution governments have only shallowly looked into the problem, resulting in the adoption of ineffective administrative solutions.

The government regards the “phosphate crisis” as a mere blip in the flow of production caused by protests that are first and foremost demanding employment. Through the lens of the government, the crisis is temporary, isolated, and related to a lax security and social situation. Some officials even believe that the crisis has “separatist” aspects, and is even a political conspiracy fomented by “extremists who aim to sabotage the economy for political purposes.”

While this is from a 2013 article the crisis continues to this day. Just have a look at this graph of the output in the Tunisian mining sector.


Hence, mining output dropped sharply in 2011 and has remained more than 30% lower since then. This obviously is a major negative supply shock to the Tunisian economy and it seems of outmost importance to solve this crisis to get the Tunisian economy out of this crisis.

Corruption is just getting worse and worse

At the core of the protests in 2011 was anger over the widespread corruption in Tunisia and corruption remains a main problem for the Tunisian economy and it is certainly something, which is causing long-term growth to be lower than it could be been (permanently shifting the Solow curve to the left).

The graph below illustrates this.


The graph shows Transparency International’s so-called Corruption Perception Index. A lower score in the index indicates more corruption. The development is far from uplifting. In fact of nearly 15 years corruption has been constantly rising in Tunisia as seen by the consistent drop in the Corruption Perception Index.

And the business environment has become less friendly

Another factor that is contributing to shifting the Solow growth curve to the left – permanently lowering real GDP growth – is the fact that despite of the democratic revolution in Tunisia the general business environment has become less friendly.

A way to illustrate this is to look at the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business survey.


A rise in the index indicates a worsening of the general ‘ease of doing business’ in Tunisia. The picture since 2010 is clear – the business environment has become less friendly in Tunisia. This surely is something, which is lowering Tunisia’s lower term growth potential.

A similarly negative trend is seen in for example Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World survey, where Tunisia’s overall ranking also have been declining in recent years.

Conclusion – reform is needed to unleash Tunisia’s economic potential

Tunisia is in the midst of a serious political, social and economic crisis. In this blog post I have tried to give an overview of what I believe are the main causes of the economic crisis.

Based on this analysis I would like to offer the following general recommendations for reform and crisis resolution in Tunisia:

  1. Despite the fact that the that Tunisia monetary policy overall has been successful in maintaining nominal stability in the past 15 years monetary reform is needed to ensure that nominal stability is also maintained in the future. A starting point for reform should be to the succes of monetary policy in the past 15 years – that means any new regime should continue to ensure nominal GDP growth around 8%. That would also ensure low and stable inflation in the future.
  2. The threat from terrorism and extremism should to be reduced. That is partly a question of law enforcement, but much more likely it is of outmost importance to empower low-income Tunisians so they to a larger extent are in control of their economic and social destiny and to create economic opportunties for all Tunisians. Other than general economic reform I also think that Tunisians should be given direct ownership of Tunisia’s many government owned companies for example through a Citizen’s account framework.
  3. Bold steps are needed to end the crisis in the Tunisian mining sector. Here privatization of the mining sector should be at the core of these efforts.
  4. Long-term economic growth needs to be increased through massive structural reforms with the purpose to reducing government intervention in the economy and empowering the Tunisian population.

Overall, I think Tunisia has an enormous economic potential – the country has a young and growing population, relatively low public debt, a historical and geographical closeness to (Southern) Europe and by Northern African standards a relatively open economy and access to (some) natural resources.

However, Tunisia cannot unleash this potential without reforms. We have had political revolution – now we need an economic revolution to free up the Tunisian economy.


If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

The Turkish demonstrations – and the usefulness of the AS/AD framework

Peter Dorman has a blog post that have gotten quite a bit of attention in the blogosphere on the AS-AD model and why he thinks it is not a useful framework. This is Peter:

“Introductory textbooks are supposed to give you simplified versions of the models that professionals use in their own work.  The blogosphere is a realm where people from a range of backgrounds discuss current issues often using simplified concepts so everyone can be on the same page.

But while the dominant framework used in introductory macro textbooks is aggregate supply—aggregate demand (AS-AD), it is almost never mentioned in the econ blogs.  My guess is that anyone who tried to make an argument about current macropolicy using an AS-AD diagram would just invite snickers.  This is not true on the micro side, where it’s perfectly normal to make an argument with a standard issue, partial equilibrium supply and demand diagram.  What’s going on here?”

I am somewhat surprised by Peter’s statement that the AS-AD framework is never mentioned on the econ blogs. That could indicate that Peter has never read my blog (no offense taken – I never read Peter’s blog before either). My regular readers would of course know that I am quite fund of using the AS-AD framework to illustrate my arguments. Other Market Monetarists – particularly Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner are doing the same thing quite regularly. See Nick’s discussion of Peter’s post here.

The purpose of this post, however, is not really to discuss Peter’s critique of the AS-AD framework, but rather to show the usefulness of the framework with a example from today’s financial news flow. Furthermore, I will do a Market Monetarist ‘spin’ on the AS-AD framework. Hence, I will stress the importance of monetary policy rules and what financial markets tell us about AD and AS shocks.

The Istanbul demonstrations as an AS shock 

Over the weekend we have seen large street protests in Istanbul in Turkey. The demonstrations are the largest demonstrations ever against the ruling AKP party and Prime Minister Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan has been in power for a decade.

The demonstrations today triggered a 10% drop in the Istanbul stock exchange so there is no doubt that investors think that these demonstrations and the political ramifications of the demonstrations will have a profound negative economic impact.

I believe a core insight of Market Monetarist thinking is that financial markets are very useful indicators about monetary policy shocks. Hence, we for example argue that if the US dollar is depreciating, market inflation expectations are rising and the US stock market is rallying then it is a very clear indication that US monetary conditions are getting easier.

While the focus of Market Monetarists have not been as much on supply shocks as on monetary policy shocks (AD shocks) it is equal possible to ‘deduct’ AS shocks from financial markets. I believe that today’s market action in the Turkish markets are a pretty good indication of exactly that – the combination of lower stock prices, higher bond yields (higher risk premium and/or higher inflation expectations) and a weaker lira tells the story that investors see the demonstrations as a negative supply shock. It is less clear whether the shock is a long-term or a short-term shock.

A short-run AS shock – mostly about disruption of production

My preferred textbook version of the AS-AD model is a model similar to the one Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok use in their great textbook Modern Principles of Economics where the model is expressed in growth rates (real GDP growth and inflation) rather than in levels.

It is obvious that the demonstrations and unrest in Istanbul are likely to lead to disruptions in production – roads are closed down, damages to infrastructure, some workers are not coming to work and even some lines of communication might be negatively impacted by the unrest. Compared to the entire Turkish economy the impact these effects is likely quite small, but it is nonetheless a negative supply shock. These shocks are, however, also likely to be temporary – short-term – rather than permanent. Hence, this is a short-run AS shock. I have illustrated that in the graph below.

AS AD SRAS shock

This is the well-known illustration of a negative short-run supply shock – inflation increases (from P to P’) and real GDP growth declines (from Y to Y’).

This might very well be what we will see in Turkey in the very short run – even though I believe these effects are likely to be quite small in size.

However, note that we here assume a “constant” AD curve.

Peter Dorman is rightly critical about this assumption in his blog post:

“…try the AD assumption that, even as the price level and real output in the economy go up or down, the money supply remains fixed.”

Peter is of course right that the implicit assumption is that the money supply (or money base) is constant. The standard IS/LM model suffers from the same problem. A fact that have led me to suggest an alternative ISLM model – the so-called IS/LM+ model in which the central bank’s monetary policy rule is taken into account.

Obviously no analysis of macroeconomic shocks should ignore the monetary policy reaction to different shocks. This is obviously something Market Monetarists have stressed again and again when it for example comes to fiscal shocks like the ‘fiscal cliff’ in the US. In the case of Turkey we should therefore take into account that the Turkish central bank (TCMB) officially is targeting 5% inflation.

Therefore if the TCMB was targeting headline inflation in a very rigid way (ECB style) it would have to react to the increase in inflation by tightening monetary policy (reducing the money base/supply) until inflation was back at the target. In the graph above that would mean that the AD curve would shift to the left until inflation would have been brought down back to 5%. The result obviously would be a further drop in real GDP growth.

In reality I believe that the TCMB would be very unlikely to react to such a short run supply. In fact the TCMB has recently cut interest rates despite the fact that inflation continue to run slightly above the inflation target of 5%. Numbers released today show Turkish headline inflation was at 6.6% in May.

In fact I believe that one with some justification can think of Turkish monetary policy as a “flexible NGDP growth targeting” (with horrible communication) where the TCMB effectively is targeting around 10% yearly NGDP growth. Interestingly enough in the Cowen-Tabarrok version of the AS-AD model that would mean that the TCMB would effectively keep the AD curve “unchanged” as the AD curve in reality is based in the equation of exchange (MV=PY).

The demonstrations could reduce long-term growth – its all about ‘regime uncertainty’

While the Istanbul demonstrations clearly can be seen as a short-run supply shock that is probably not what the markets are really reacting to. Instead it is much more likely the the markets are reacting to fears that the ultimate outcome of the demonstrations could lead to lower long-run real GDP growth.

Cowen and Tabarrok basically think of long-run growth within a Solow growth model. Hence, there are overall three drivers of growth in the long run – labour forces growth, an increase in the capital stock and higher total factor productivity (TFP – think of that as “knowledge”/technology).

I believe that the most relevant channel for affecting long-run growth in the case of the demonstrations is the impact on investments in Turkey which likely will influence both the size of the capital stock and TFP negatively.

Broadly speaking I think Robert Higgs concept of “Regime Uncertainty” comes in handy here.  This is Higgs:

“The hypothesis is a variant of an old idea: the willingness of businesspeople to invest requires a sufficiently healthy state of “business confidence,”  … To narrow the concept of business confidence, I adopt the interpretation that businesspeople may be more or less “uncertain about the regime,” by which I mean, distressed that investors’ private property rights in their capital and the income it yields will be attenuated further by government action. Such attenuations can arise from many sources, ranging from simple tax-rate increases to the imposition of new kinds of taxes to outright confiscation of private property. Many intermediate threats can arise from various sorts of regulation, for instance, of securities markets, labor markets, and product markets. In any event, the security of private property rights rests not so much on the letter of the law as on the character of the government that enforces, or threatens, presumptive rights.”

I think this is pretty telling about the fears that investors might have about the situation in Turkey. It might be that the Turkish government is not loved by investors, but investors are clearly uncertain about what would follow if the demonstrations led to “regime change” in Turkey and a new government. Furthermore, the main opposition party – the CHP – is hardly seen as reformist.

And even if the AKP does remain in power the increased public disconnect could lead to ‘disruptions of production’ (broadly speaking) again and again in the future.  Furthermore, the government hard-handed reaction to the demonstrations might also “complicate” Turkey’s relationship to both the EU and the US – something which likely also will weigh on foreign direct investments into Turkey.

Hence, regime uncertainty therefore is likely to reduce the long-run growth in the Turkish economy. Obviously it is hard to estimate the scale such effects, but at least judging from the sharp drop in the Turkish stock market today the negative long-run supply shock is sizable.

I have illustrated such a negative long-run supply shock in the graph below.

LRAS shock

The result is the same as in the short-run model – a negative supply shock reduces real GDP growth and increases inflation.

However, I would stress that the TCMB would likely not in the long run accept a permanent higher rate of inflation and as a result the TCMB therefore sooner or later would have to tighten monetary policy to push down inflation (by shifting the AD curve to the left). This also illustrates that the demonstrations is likely to become a headache for the TCMB management.

Is the ‘tourism multiplier’ zero? 

Above I have primarily described the Istanbul demonstrations as a negative supply shock. However, some might argue that this is also going to lead to a negative demand shock.

Hence, Turkey very year has millions of tourists coming to the country and some them will likely stay away this year as a consequence of the unrest. In the Cowen- Tabarrok formulation of the AD curve a negative shock to tourism would effectively be a negative shock to money velocity. This obviously would shift the AD curve to the left – as illustrated in the graph below.

AD shock

Hence, we initially get a drop in both inflation and real GDP growth as the AD curve shifts left.

However, we should never forget to think about the central bank’s reaction to a negative AD shock. Hence, whether the TCMB is targeting inflation or some kind of NGDP growth target it would “automatically” react to the drop in aggregate demand by easing monetary policy.

In the case the TCMB is targeting inflation it would ease monetary policy until the AD curve has shifted back and the inflation rate is back at the inflation target.

This effectively means that a negative shock to Turkish tourism should not be expected to have an negative impact on aggregate demand in Turkey for long. This effectively is a variation of the Sumner Critique – this time, however, it is not the budget multiplier, which is zero, but rather the ‘tourism multiplier’.

Hence, from a macroeconomic perspective the demonstrations are unlikely to have any major negative impact on aggregate demand as we would expect the TCMB to offset any such negative shock by easing monetary policy.

That, however, does not mean that a negative shock to tourism will not impact the Turkish financial markets. Hence, there will be a change in the composition of aggregate demand – less tourism “exports” and more domestic demand. This likely is bad news for the Turkish lira.

Mission accomplished – we can use the AS-AD framework to analysis the ‘real world’

I hope that my discussion above have demonstrated that the AS-AD framework can be a very useful tool when analyzing real world problems – such as the present public unrest in Turkey. Obviously Peter Dorman is right – we should know the limitations of the AS-AD model and we should particularly be aware what kind of monetary policy reaction there will be to different shocks. But if we take that into account I believe the textbook (the Cowen-Tabarrok textbook) version of the AS-AD model is a quite useful tool. In fact it is a tool that I use every single day both when I produce research in my day-job or talk to clients about such ‘events’ as the Turkish demonstrations.

Furthermore, I would add that I could have done the same kind of analysis in a DSGE framework, but I doubt that my readers would have enjoyed looking at a lot of equations and a DSGE model would likely have reveal little more about the real world than the version of the AS-AD model I have presented above.

PS Please also take a look at this paper in which I discuss the politics and economics of the present Turkish crisis.

PPS Paul Krugman, Nick Rowe and Mark Thoma also comment on the usefulness of the AS-AD framework.

MRUniversity – join now!

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have written one of the best economics textbooks out there and now they are introducing the Marginal Revolution University.

Is is how the gentlemen introduces MRUniversity:

We think education should be better, cheaper, and easier to access.  So we decided to take matters into our own hands and create a new online education platform toward those ends. We have decided to do more to communicate our personal vision of economics to you and to the broader world.

You can visit http://www.MRUniversity.com here.  There you can sign up for information about our first course, Development Economics, which is described by Alex below.

Here are a few of the principles behind MR University:

1. The product is free (like this blog), and we offer more material in less time.

2. Most of our videos are short, so you can view and listen between tasks, rather than needing to schedule time for them.  The average video is five minutes, twenty-eight seconds long.  When needed, more videos are used to explain complex topics.

3. No talking heads and no long, boring lectures.  We have tried to reconceptualize every aspect of the educational experience to be friendly to the on-line world.

4. It is low bandwidth and mobile-friendly.  No ads.

5. We offer tests and quizzes.

6. We have plans to subtitle the videos in major languages.  Our reach will be global, and in doing so we are building upon the global emphasis of our home institution, George Mason University.

7. We invite users to submit content.

8. It is a flexible learning module.  It is not a “MOOC” per se, although it can be used to create a MOOC, namely a massive, open on-line course.

9. It is designed to grow rapidly and flexibly, absorbing new content in modular fashion — note the beehive structure to our logo.  But we are starting with plenty of material.

10. We are pleased to announce that our first course will begin on October 1

I think this is a great idea and a very good opportunity for students of economics and amateur economists to get high quality economic education from some of the best and most clever guys out there. So I encourage everybody just remotely interested in economics to sign up NOW.

%d bloggers like this: