Sunday, April 27, 2008

Red Watch: Maoists and the Economy

The Maoists surprised the whole world this month by securing the highest number of seats in the recently held CA elections. Well before that, I was wondering (see this one as well) the economic policies under the Maoists.

While people argue that the cloud of intimidation and insecurity caused by the Maoist affiliated trade unions and YCL are undermining investor confidence, the Maoists seem to be engaged in their own conservative analysis. The chief of industry division of the CPN-Maoist, Krishna Achary, argues that his party would "transform the country's conservative economic policy to make it investment-friendly." Regarding the issue of NPL and defaulters, he says that they would act on the recommendation of a new committee, which is still to be formed.

What I don't understand is on what ground is today's economic policies conservative (remember, Nepal is one of the most liberal economies in South Asia, according to WB standards). Moreover, how would the party ensure investment-friendly climate at a time when the investors are worried by bully from the trade unions and a fear of insecurity? Also, why would we need another committee to look at the same, decades old defaulters issue? We already had a comprehensive report and recommendation two years ago, and note that there have been numerous committees, on average one on each time power changed, to look into the same problem. We already know the solutions, so why do we again want another committee? Just a waste of resources and time! See this.

Meanwhile, Hisila Yami, Maoist minister for Physical Planning and Works, argues that “To cut down the growing congestion in the Kathmandu Valley, the best way is to bring the country into a federal structure at the earliest.” What??? From when did this correlation exist?

Shattering taboo: Woman with a buffalo-cart!

tharu woman with a buffalo-cart

A Tharu woman drives a buffalo-cart at Tikapur in Kailali district on Friday. This activity used to be male preserve until recently.

(Source: The Kathmandu Post, April 26, 2008)

Food Inflation Watch: Duflo argues for the need for insurance

MIT economist Esther Duflo on rising food prices:

...Several reasons explain the upward trend in prices, including the demand for biofuels (which consume a significant part of the corn produced worldwide), and the growth and enrichment of the world population (particularly the increased demand for meat in China – paradoxically, it takes more grain to produce a calorie in meat form than it does to produce a calorie in grain form).

Several short-term factors also help to explain the recent price peak. Because the main consumers of rice are also producers, the volume of rice traded is low compared to the volume of rice produced (only seven percent of produced rice is traded). Restrictions by big producers (such as India) can thus have large impacts on the world price of rice, since they affect a large proportion of the volume of rice traded. It keeps the prices in India relatively insulated from what is happening on the world market, however. Wheat harvests have been poor in several major producing countries, rice is suffering from a mysterious parasite in Vietnam, and following accusation of corruption and mismanagement in the last few years, there have been sharp declines in grain stocks maintained by governments to stabilise prices (they are at their lowest levels since 1984). As a result, prices are not only high in general, but also more volatile (another drop in rice prices is expected after the harvests in Indonesia and India); even the financial crisis plays a role: in the current meltdown, commodities offer an interesting betting opportunity.

...So when grain prices rise, some of the poor gain, and some lose – in the short-term. In part, the uproar over food prices reflects a fundamental political economy reality: when some gain and some lose, the voice of those who lose is always louder. This is particularly true of an increase in food prices, which hurt primarily the urban poor. In the medium-term, however, an increase in price volatility is damaging for everyone. Poor families in developing countries are already facing enormous risks (they are often self-employed, they are subject to the uncertainties of weather, and their health is fragile), and there is very little insurance against such risks, apart from their own savings or informal solidarity. Furthermore, these risks are more serious for households struggling to provide the bare minimum. A setback might mean sacrificing the children’s education, or not being able to save a little girl from a diarrhea attack (on this, see a beautiful paper by Elaina Rose, which showed that during drought, the relative survival probability of girls dramatically declines).3 A passing difficulty can leave a permanent scar.

Beyond emergency relief, which the world community is scrambling to organise at the moment, it is essential to establish effective insurance against variability in food prices for the poorest. Many argue now that the way to do it is to stop trade and encourage countries be “self sufficient” in food. This seems of course a third best solution, since the countries would then be entirely dependent on the vagaries of the weather at home. It is also not clear what countries that are net food importers would do (in the long run, the argument goes, they will improve their productivity… however, given Senegal’s climate, producing rice there will always be much more expansive than doing it in Thailand). The traditional method used by developing country governments – maintaining large stockpiles of grain by buying when the price is low and selling when the price is high – has its share of problems. In India, it was said that at some point that there were enough bags of rice in those storage facilities to go to the moon and back. The losses in storage and to corruption were important. Alternatively, the governments can manipulate prices using taxes and subsidies. Or perhaps it is time to be creative and make the international financial services actually work for the poor: governments could provide price insurance for the poor (in the form of transfers to some when price are high, and others when price are low). Countries that are neither net sellers nor net buyers could do this internally, and countries that are either net sellers or net buyers should be able to sell this insurance on the world market. There is nothing straightforward about these solutions. The key point, however, is that it is urgent to think of something.

The Cost of Food: Facts and Figures (from the BBC News)

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Stuff by and of John Maynard Keynes

Here are some interesting stuff from the great economist John Maynard Keynes.

  1. The Economic Consequences Of The Peace (published in 1920)
  2. The World's Economic Outlook (published in 1932)
  3. Introduction by Paul Krugman to The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, by John Maynard Keynes
  4. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (published in 1935)
  5. An Open Letter to President Roosevelt
  6. Keynes, Einstein and Scientific Revolution (by James K. Galbriath)
  7. Tonnes and tonnes of stuff here

Enjoy the classic masterpieces by Keynes(except for #3 and #6)! HT to DeLong