This blog has long taken the position that Hugo Chávez was uniquely incompetent. There was a time, back in 2008, where we gave him political props for building an effective machine. That admiration began to fade with the electricity crisis. Then some of this blog’s old readers (where have you gone?) made good arguments that the Chávez boom wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, although we remained on the positive side of neutral. Sure, there were some shortages caused by price controls. But other than the insanity in the electricity sector, the controls could be justified as a means of income redistribution in a country that lacked the administrative ability to impose punishing income taxes. (This gets to a question from Randy that I will try to get back to.)
Unfortunately, the Socialists proceeded to run completely off the rails. Their cardinal sin was keeping the bolívar pegged at 6.3 to the dollar. The resulting capital controls have led to massive shortages of imported goods. Had the exchange rate regime been liberalized after the 2013 elections, living standards would have been hit, but the economy would be in better shape now. As importantly, the Maduro administration would have the space to engineer a mini-boom before the midterm elections. As it stands, however, Venezuelan exchange rate policy stands as an incredible example of economic and political incompetence.
After all, in a another world the people lined up to buy cheap goods at a state-owned supermarket would be grateful to the government which got it for them. But in this world they are quite angry at the government. Here is a good article by David Smilde of Tulane University that argues that it is too late to effectively reform. The Socialists are going to (a) lose the next election; (b) pull some sort of hat-trick involving Chinese money and a short-election season; or (c) actually turn Venezuela into a dictatorship. (The link goes to an earlier post here that argues that the Polity IV score ranking Venezuela as already dictatorial is bullshit. But we were would agree that it is not far-fetched to imagine Maduro abandoning democracy, possibly via unconstitutionally postponing the midterm elections. That Polity IV ranker may have been prescient.)
Or maybe Trinidad will come to the rescue? On Wednesday, the Trini prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, offered to swap tissue paper for bitumen. “The government of Trinidad and Tobago will purchase goods identified by the government of Venezuela from T&T’s manufacturers, such as tissue paper, gasoline, and parts for machinery.” It is part of the Trinidadian charm offensive that just enabled a deal for joint exploration for natural gas in the Gulf of Paria.
But as strange as it is to see T&T riding to the of the Bolivarian Republic, I would argue that it is probably too late for (b). The government certainly has started to throw a lot of opposition leaders in jail. That is more (c) than (b), even if they manage to pull off a win without election fraud. (Stealing elections, we have to add, is hard to do in Venezuela. Some things Chávez did right.)
So what does all this have to do with Panama? Well, mainly a demonstration that I am not an orthodox right-wing buzzword-of-the-day.
When President Juan Carlos Varela took office on July 1st, 2014, Panama faced an inflationary spiral. (See page 4.)To some extent, the idea of inflation in Panama sounds odd: the country uses the U.S. dollar. There has been no sign of inflation in the United States, so why were prices escalating in Panama? Simple: Panama was in the middle of a huge economic boom. (See page 19.) Incomes were rising fast and pulling up prices.
The traditional diagnosis in such a situation is that supply bottlenecks are the cause of the inflation. In that view, the right answers are (a) wait it out; or (b) slow economic growth via austerity. There were two problems with (a). First, the inflation hit the poor hard. In Panama, unlike the United States, overall turnout tops 75% and most people are still relatively poor ... governments cannot safely ignore them the way they do in North America. Second, prices are sticky. Increases in the price of food will translate into wage increases. In a dollarized economy, that means a loss of competitiveness and a serious adjustment problem ahead. (To some extent, that is what happened to Spain during the early years of the euro.) If you can keep inflation from escalating, you should.
The problem with solution (b), of course, is that austerity is painful. And there is a diagnosis in which austerity is unnecessary. What if the bottlenecks aren’t physical? Rather, what if they are caused by an uncompetitive wholesale sector? In that world, rising demand leads to rising prices not because goods are scarce but because wholesalers and retailers are using the opportunity to take profits. If that view is correct, a big if, then the government can use price controls to break the inflationary spiral. Merchants will have lower profits, but there will be no shortages: it will still pay for them to provide goods.
My esteemed colleague in what remains of the blogosphere, Fausta, confidently predicted that shortages would result if Panama imposed price controls. (She is correct in pointing out that former-president Martinelli was a supermarket magnate!) Economists were more divided (the headline of the article is misleading) although they did universally insist that the controls should be temporary.
President Varela went ahead with his campaign promise and imposed controls. The decree with the list of the prices can be found here. The ones I recognize are lower but not that different from the price in D.C.: frex, we buy chicken breasts for about 90¢ a pound.
So what happened? No shortages. Lots of fines. A dramatic fall in inflation. The Varela administration has decided to extend the controls until July 2015. For more details you can find an August 2014 analysis from the Economics and Finance Ministry here.
In short, a victory for economic heterodoxy, hooray! (FWIW, President Varela is from the conservative party in Panama.)
Of course, with no independent monetary policy, nobody in Panama has any incentive to take advantage of the controls to, say, print money and engineer an electoral boom. But still.
So there. I am against the Chavistas because they are incompetent and authoritarian, not because they are left-wing or heterodox. May there be an election in Venezuela and may the Socialist Party lose.