State central planning vs Household decentralized planning

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last week.

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“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design… Planning leads to dictatorship because dictatorship is the most effective instrument of coercion and the enforcement of ideals and, as such, essential if central planning on a large scale is to be possible.”— Friedrich Hayek

The bigger the socioeconomic unit like a state, the less central planning should be. And the smaller the socioeconomic unit like a household, the bigger the planning should be. The family is a good example of this. Parents take care of their children until they grow up. Once the kids feel they are independent enough, they move out of the house. And moving out is an expression or an attempt at independence of the kids from the nitty-gritty of support and intervention by the parents or guardians.

In contrast, in many countries including the Philippines, as the population expands and as the needs and aspirations of the growing population further diversifies, the state bureaucratizes further and regulates and imposes more taxes. Meaningful decentralization and federalism is muted by high taxes and regulations from the central or federal government so that the states, provinces, and cities are left with little leeway for tax adjustments and regulations.

2017061563250The current tax reform program of Dutertenomics known as TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) is generally based on envy. While its income tax cut for the low income earners is good and commendable, its tax hike for upper middle class and the rich is not. And the government will hike the taxes of many other products and services including those consumed by the poor and lower middle class — cars, petroleum products, sugar-sweetened beverages, more services that will be covered by VAT.

This government therefore, its politicians and bureaucracies, feel that they have more entitlement to the income and wealth of the upper middle class and the rich. The implicit message is that if people aspire to become upper middle class and rich, the state will go after them, demonize them if they resist paying more taxes. And this is where the advice of Friedrich Hayek above becomes appropriate.

During the BusinessWorld Economic Forum last May 19, 2017 at Shangri-La at the Fort, one of the impressive speakers in the afternoon session was Ms. Vicky Abad of Kantar. She discussed what are the income ranges of upper and lower middle class households and their aspirations. Below is the income class differentiation she made. ONCR means Outside of the National Capital Region (NCR) or Metro Manila (See table).

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Three things are worthy of note in Ms. Abad’s presentation.

One, middle class households in C1, C2, and D classes comprise some 72% of the population or nearly three out of four households. Those in D should include previously bicycles- or jeep-riding people who now drive motorcycles or second, third-hand cars.

Two, while middle income class C1 and C2 are big consumers of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) or consumer packaged goods, the class D households drive about 62% of the FMCG market in value contribution.

Three, the key, constant driver of middle class aspirations is being able to provide for the needs of family. Family basic needs, health, and savings are the top three concerns. Followed by friends/bayanihan, car and house, value of work, and social status/rewards like travel.

Many of these things are not sufficiently provided by the government. There is public education, yes, but many middle class including government officials and personnel bring their kids to private schools and universities. There is public health but these people go to private hospitals and clinics when they are unwell. There is public peace and order by the police but these people employ lots of private security agencies to secure their villages, schools, shops, banks, buildings. There is public welfare department but many people still dig deep into their pockets and savings to help their fellow Filipinos struck by severe natural calamities.

With this wide gap between government taxation and low quality of public services, and the rising aspirations of the people, government central planning should decline, and households should be given more leeway, more take home pay via deep income tax cut across the board. Household planning should prevail over state central planning.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the head of Minimal Government Thinkers and a SEANET Fellow. Both are members of Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia.

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China’s debt, central planning and central crashes

* This is my article in BusinessWorld yesterday.

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“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — Friedrich Hayek.

One of the characteristics of centrally planned economies like China is that officials and planners centralize many resources, which creates centralized expectations from the people, and since planners’ egos cannot really plan and control all factors, this often results in centralized economic dislocation, disappointment, and anger.

Take the case of China’s debt.

Officially, China has a gross public debt/gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of only 41% in 2014, manageable and just slightly higher than the debt/GDP ratio of Taiwan and South Korea (38% and 36%, respectively). But China has more debt that what it will officially admit.

A report by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) said that China total borrowings (individuals + companies + local and central governments + state enterprises) was 282% of GDP in 2014, higher than the debt ratio of the US, Germany, Canada, and other big economies. (See Graph 1)

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High debt, private and public, will always create financial turmoil, today or tomorrow. Especially in a dictatorship that abhors political competition and yet wants to mimic economies that allow market and political competition.

This was discussed in “The Chinese Financial Crises and their Impact on Asia,” one of the panel discussions during the recently-concluded “Asia Liberty Forum” in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from Feb. 18-20. The session was chaired by Prof. Christopher Lingle of the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. The speakers were Dr. Carmelo Ferlito, IDEAS Senior Fellow, Malaysia and Adjunct Faculty Member at INTI International College Subang, Malaysia, Andrew Shuen of Lion Rock Institute, Hong Kong, and Dr. Mao Shoulong, Renmin University, also of Unirule Institute, China. These three independent think tanks — IDEAS, Lion Rock, and Unirule are all members of the Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia. (See Graph 2)

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In his presentation, Carmelo Ferlito noted that from 2003-2008, China’s total debt was stable to declining at 170% of GDP, then by 2009, it exploded and kept rising. He further noted that “a lot of this debt is sitting in local governments or state-owned enterprises. There is assumption that government can let its “zombie” entities stumble on as debt-paying vehicles or maybe occasionally let a couple default without any systemic contagion.

But now the Chinese government again began buying stocks to prop up its plummeting stock market, that is unsustainable.”

LESSONS FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA

With the continuing financial turmoil in China that started last year, there are lessons to be explored for emerging economies in the region like the Philippines.

  1. Fiscal and household irresponsibility will snap. As public and private debts become bigger, economic uncertainty will also rise as those debts should be repaid. People will never know who can pay back and when, and who will default.
  1. Moral hazards. A central planning government tends to attract less-studied behavior by the public. As a result, people with low financial literacy may be encouraged to gamble their savings at the stock market, thinking that the government will bail out anyway.
  1. Central planning leads to central disappointment. Central planning cannot and will not cure and control everything, including stock prices, booms and busts, debt spirals, and inflation. Central planning can only postpone small busts until these become bigger and burst. Authoritarianism can never be compatible with free markets.

The great Nobel prize economist and political philosopher, Friedrich Hayek, has some words to say about central planners. It is important that economists and planners outside communist China should heed them.

“No man or group of men possesses the capacity to determine conclusively the potentialities of other human beings and that we should certainly never trust anyone invariably to exercise such a capacity.” — The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Chapter 6, “Equality, Value and Merit.”

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the President of Minimal Government Thinkers, a member of the Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia, and a fellow of South East Asia Network for Development (SEANET).  minimalgovernment@gmail.com

China’s stock market and central planning

bw2* This is my article in BusinessWorld Weekender yesterday.

HIGH DEBT, private and public, will always create financial turmoil, today or tomorrow. The ongoing fiscal drama in heavily indebted Greece will continue for many months to come, whether it will stay using the Euro or not. And recently, it was China’s turn with the recent near-crash of its stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzen, and partially affecting the markets in Hong Kong.

Unlike the markets in the US, Japan, UK, Germany and other democratic countries, the case of China will always be internally conflicting. It is a dictatorship that abhors political competition and yet it wants to mimic economies that allow market competition.

HIGH PUBLIC DEBT

Officially, China has a gross public debt/GDP ratio of only 41% in 2014, manageable and just slightly higher than the debt/GDP ratio of Taiwan and South Korea (38% and 36%, respectively). But China has more debt than what it will officially admit.

A report by McKinsey Global Institute recently said that China’s total borrowings (individuals + companies + local and central governments + state enterprises) was 282% of GDP in 2014. This is very high for a non-industrialized economy like China.

There is high-margin lending (borrowed funds for stocks investment), reaching $323 billion last month alone, invested in the stock market by many novice, first-time stock investors numbering in tens of thousands.

STOCK MARKET BUBBLE

From 2010-2014, China’s stock market capitalization/GDP ratio averaged only about 45%. By June 12 this year, it rose to almost 100%, showing a huge asset price bubble in the first half of this year.

In comparison, this ratio is mildly increasing in the US (around 140% in 2014) and Japan (nearly 100% in 2014) from 2011 up to the present.

Figure 1 (from Bloomberg)

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The bubble started last year when government media repeatedly announced that stocks were cheap, with the implicit understanding that the central planning authorities can control prices from falling. Millions of novice and first-time stock investors came in droves, China’s market capitalization tripled and reached $9.8 trillion, according to a Bloomberg report last June 30.

From 2011 to mid-2014, Shanghai’s price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio was only around 12. By late 2014-mid-2015, this rose to 26, more than double in less than one year.

BUBBLE CRASHED

Why did the bubble burst so suddenly? There are several explanations and hypotheses for this.

One is that China is experiencing a GDP growth slowdown of “only” 7% or less, compared to 9-12% per year for the last three decades or more. Two, some government stimulus programs to shield China from various global turmoil have to end. Three, finance also follows the law of gravity: the speed and height of price rise is somehow directly proportional to the speed and depth of price decline.

The magnitude of the stock price decline was $3.9 trillion, according to the Bloomberg China Market Cap index. That was equivalent to the GDP size of Germany, larger than the GDP sizes of UK or France or Brazil, and twice the GDP of Russia.

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The bulk of China stock investors are the more than 90 million individuals who make up about 80% of the market, according to a survey of households.

The stocks crash was worse than the US property crisis in 2008-09, although in terms of global interconnection and contagion, the US financial turmoil last decade had a larger impact. Significant deterioration in the public debt of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus, Italy, etc. occurred in 2009 and 2010, obviously a result of contagion from the US.

Compared to the Greece debt problem, this is much larger. Greece’s GDP size in 2014 was only $238 billion, and its total public debt was about $320 billion.

CENTRAL PLANNING FIGHTS BACK

China’s government responded with several measures. One, the central bank cut interest rates, hoping that more savings from the banks will go to the stocks market. Two, some stock traders and speculators were investigated with threats of prosecution for stock rumor mongering. Three, a number of planned initial public offerings (IPOs) were suspended. Four, outright stop in trading.

From Bloomberg reports:

“At least 1,301 companies have halted trading on mainland Chinese exchanges, locking up $2.6 trillion of shares, or about 40 percent of China’s market capitalization. The China Financial Futures Exchange raised margin requirements for sell orders on CSI 500 index futures, while the central bank will provide “ample liquidity” to the stock market. China Securities Finance Corp. said it will buy more shares of small- and mid-cap companies.” (July 8)

“Official measures to support shares became more extreme during the week as declines deepened. They include a ban on stockholders and executives from selling stakes in listed companies for six months, an order for companies to buy equities and an investigation by the nation’s public security bureau into short-selling.” (July 10)

LESSONS FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA

Emerging economies in the region like the Philippines can draw lessons from this latest episode in regional and global economics.

1 Moral hazards. When a central planning government rallied the public to invest in the market, many investors with little or zero experience in the market came believing they couldn’t lose money since the government is big enough to guarantee returns or bail them out later.

2 Adverse selection. Millions of new novice investors have picked up the wrong timing, at a time when fiscal uncertainty hounds the EU and China was experiencing growth slowdown. Adverse selection often results in adverse results.

3 Debts and uncertainty. As public and private debts become bigger and bigger, the economic uncertainty also becomes bigger. People will never know who can pay back and when, and who will default.

4 Corporate fundamentals. Investors should do hard analyses of the fundamentals of companies whose stocks they are buying, and not just wait for cues and pronouncements from government. It can be a case where as government intervenes more, it creates more panic and price volatility.

5 Central planning and central disappointment. Central planning cannot and will not cure and control everything, including stock price ups and downs, boom and bust. Central planning works mainly to postpone small busts to become huge busts and bursts. Authoritarianism can never be compatible with free markets.

6 Role of government. The state and its various agencies, from local governments to different regulatory agencies to monetary authorities, should focus on ensuring fair market rules rather than guaranteeing outcomes.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. heads a free market think tank in Manila, Minimal Government Thinkers, Inc., and is also a fellow of South East Asia Network for Development (SEANET), a regional center based in Kuala Lumpur advocating economic freedom in the region.