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Escaping the Oil Curse

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CAMBRIDGE – Libyans have a new lease on life, a feeling that, at long last, they are the masters of their own fate. Perhaps Iraqis, after a decade of warfare, feel the same way. Both countries are oil producers, and there is widespread expectation among their citizens that that wealth will be a big advantage in rebuilding their societies.

Meanwhile, in Africa, Ghana has begun pumping oil for the first time, and Uganda is about to do so as well. Indeed, from West Africa to Mongolia, countries are experiencing windfalls from new discoveries of oil and mineral wealth. Heightening the euphoria are the historic levels that oil and mineral prices have reached on world markets over the last four years.

Many countries have been in this position before, exhilarated by natural-resource bonanzas, only to see the boom end in disappointment and the opportunity squandered, with little payoff in terms of a better quality of life for their people. But, whether in Libya or Ghana, political leaders today have an advantage: most are well aware of history, and want to know how to avoid the infamous natural-resource “curse.”

To prescribe a cure, one must first diagnose the illness. Why do oil riches turn out to be a curse as often as they are a blessing?

Economists have identified six pitfalls that can afflict natural-resource exporters: commodity-price volatility, crowding out of manufacturing, “Dutch disease” (a booming export industry causes rapid currency appreciation, which undermines other exporters’ competitiveness), inhibited institutional development, civil war, and excessively rapid resource depletion (with insufficient saving).

Oil prices are especially volatile, as the large swings over the last five years remind us. The recent oil boom could easily turn to bust, especially if global economic activity slows.

Volatility itself is costly, leaving economies unable to respond effectively to price signals. Temporary commodity booms typically pull workers, capital, and land away from fledgling manufacturing sectors and production of other internationally traded goods. This reallocation can damage long-term economic development if those sectors nurture learning by doing and fuel broader productivity gains.

The problem is not just that workers, capital, and land are sucked into the booming commodity sector. They also are frequently lured away from manufacturing by booms in construction and other non-tradable goods and services. The pattern also includes an exuberant expansion of government spending, which can result in bloated public payrolls and large infrastructure projects, both of which are found to be unsustainable when oil prices fall. If the manufacturing sector has been “hollowed out” in the meantime, so much the worse.

Even if an increase in oil prices turns out to be permanent, pitfalls abound. Governments that can finance themselves simply by retaining physical control over oil or mineral deposits often fail in the long run to develop institutions that are conducive to economic development.

Such countries evolve a hierarchical authoritarian society in which the only incentive is to compete for privileged access to commodity rents. In the extreme case, this competition can take the form of civil war. In a country without resource wealth, by contrast, elites have little alternative but to nurture a decentralized economy in which individuals have incentives to work and save. These are the economies that industrialize.

The final pitfall is excessively rapid depletion of oil or mineral deposits, in violation of optimal rates of saving, let alone environmental preservation.

What can countries do to ensure that natural resources are a blessing rather than a curse? Some policies and institutions have been tried and failed. These include, in particular, attempts to suppress artificially the fluctuations of the global marketplace by imposing price controls, export controls, marketing boards, and cartels.

But some countries have succeeded, and their strategies could be useful models for Libya, Iraq, Ghana, Mongolia, and others to emulate. These include: hedging export earnings – for example, via the oil options market, as Mexico does; ensuring counter-cyclical fiscal policy – for example, via a variant of Chile’s structural budget rule; and delegating sovereign wealth funds to professional managers, as Botswana’s Pula Fund does.

Finally, some promising ideas have virtually never been tried at all: denominating bonds in oil prices instead of dollars, to protect against the risk of a price decline; choosing commodity-price targeting as an alternative to inflation targeting or exchange-rate targeting for anchoring monetary policy; and distributing oil revenues on a nationwide per capita basis, to ensure that they do not wind up in elites’ Swiss bank accounts.

Leaders have free will. Oil exporters need not be prisoners of a curse that has befallen others. Countries can choose to use their resource bonanzas for the long-term economic advancement of their people, not just that of their leaders.

Jeffrey Frankel is Professor of Capital Formation and Growth at Harvard University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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