Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Petrol Price and the Soulful Science

Wrote this comment on Nat's blog. Thought that it might be relevant to the previous post, so I am reproducing it here:

But Nat, economics IS humane. As humane as any discipline could get. Some argue it is a soulful science. One even wrote a book with that title. What it could do is to have better public intellectuals to do some good PR job for some of the explanations and reasonings.

In the context of your post, I think a true economist (ie, not the talking heads on Bloomberg, or your local financial analysts) would be deeply misguided if 'efficiency' is regarded as an ultimate goal. In all reasonable considerations, efficiency is at most a proximate goal, with the ultimate goal being the wellbeing everyone. No one should really argue for efficiency just for efficiency sake. For eg, if you truly embrace and understand the purpose of central banks, the ultimate goal of all central bankers is to maintain and improve a sustainable level of living standard - inflation stability and economic growth are proximate objectives.

So when a clear headed economist argue that the fuel price increase is good, it is not because she is making a case of efficiency is more important than the rakyat. On the contrary, it is because the fuel increase is good for the rakyat ultimately. The problem is that the reason why this is good is so against intuition and conventional wisdom, that most economists making a non-apologetic case for it sound like bitches.

And now moving on to be even more specific, I disagree with phased increase in fuel price. If we agree that removal of fuel subsidy is inevitable, and that the main problem with removal of subsidy is hardship for the people due to inflation, then phased increase in price will ultimately hurt the people more, not less. And no, it is not hoarding and the sorts, but through the main determinant of inflation - inflation expectation. A one time increase limits the expectation of future inflation, but a staggered increase embeds the expectation. A phased increase in fuel price will most probably lead to much higher overall inflation than a one time increase. And when that happens, the hardship of the rakyat will be greater, not less. One can take a corollary of this argument in central banks raising interest rates, either one time or in a staggered manner. If the central bank is worried about inflation expectation (as compared to being worried about a financial market meltdown), you would expect it to raise rates over a period of time, multiple times in a staggered manner. This embeds expectation. In the reverse, if you do not want to embed expectation as in the case of raising fuel price, you should want to do it in one go. I am doing a bad job in explaning this, but Paul Krugman wrote briefly on this matter not so long ago - google "Krugman + embedded inflation".

This doesn't mean we should ignore those who are badly hit by this one time increase. It is just that there would be more badly hit people if it is phased. One way to alleviate the hardship of the poor is to have direct transfer to them, and the road-tax rebate does this. It is imperfect yes; no tool is perfect, but it is important that it reaches the intended target most of the time (for eg, a blanket fuel subsidy for everyone is NOT a good tool to help the poor). Yes, you can argue that it is unfair that some Beemer and Merc owners get the rebate too, but how many of these cases are there anyway, compared to the rest of the population? 5% to 95%?

But of course, more could be done. Income-based, mean tested transfer perhaps. If the Government is wise, this should be in the planning process for the next Budget.

Man, I post the longest comments on your blog, haha.

Noticed the alliterating title?


Thursday, 5 June 2008

A Good Day, with Caveat

While I might need to consider getting a lower capacity car now, I welcome the move by the Government wholeheartedly. Fuel subsidy is something that needs to go - so I praise the present government for doing so despite the immense unpopularity of it. On a positive-side, it might represent, finally, a strong political willpower to do what is right instead of what is popular. To be negative, it could simply mean that the Government has run out of choice but to pull the subsidy. Judiciously, I think it is a balance of both.

Malaysians need to accept the reality of this and regard this as a positive change, for the nation and for all of us - we have been dulled by protectionism for far too long. And I hope Malaysians will accept this change graciously, as responsible citizens.

But make no mistake; now that the citizens are expected to be responsible, there will be very little tolerance for irresponsibilities from the Government. Tit for tat. More display of public wastage, and you can expect Malaysians to be more brutal than 8 March.

2 Cents.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Bad Policies Galore

Martin Wolf's latest piece on the FT reviews the newly launched Spence's Growth Report. A very good read overall, but the best part in relation to Malaysia has to be the list of policies to be avoided:

" Particularly welcome is the short list of policies to be avoided. Among them are: subsidising energy (particularly relevant today); using the civil service as employer of last resort; reducing fiscal deficits by cutting spending on infrastructure; providing open-ended protection to specific sectors; using price controls as a way to curb inflation; banning exports, to keep domestic prices low; underinvesting in urban infrastructure; underpaying public servants, such as teachers; and allowing the exchange rate to appreciate too far, too quickly. "