Category Archives: iraq

Escaping the Oil Curse

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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 sources of oil and mineral wealth. Adding to the euphoria are the historic highs 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, these countries’ current leaders 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), excessively rapid resource depletion, inhibition of institutional development, and civil war.

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 are the ones that 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.

Another pitfall is excessively rapid depletion of oil or mineral deposits, in violation of optimal rates of saving, let alone preservation of the environment.   

Even if high oil revenues turn out to be permanent, pitfalls nonetheless abound. Governments that can finance themselves simply by retaining physical control over the oil or mineral deposits located within their borders often fail in the long run to develop institutions that are conducive to economic development.  Such countries evolve a hierarchical authoritarian society where 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.

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 countercyclical fiscal policy – for example via Chile’s kind of 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: linking bonds to oil prices instead of dollars, to protect against the risk of a price decline; choosing Product Price Targeting as an alternative to either inflation targeting or exchange-rate targeting, to play the role of anchor for 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 peoples.


[This column originally appeared at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there.]

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UAE and Other Gulf Countries Urged to Switch Currency Peg from the Dollar to a Basket That Includes Oil

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The possibility that some Gulf states, particularly the United Arab Emirates, might abandon their long-time pegs to the dollar has been getting increasing attention recently (for example, from Feldstein and, especially, Setser).   It makes sense.  The combination of high oil prices, rapid growth, a tightly fixed exchange rate, and the big depreciation of the dollar against other currencies (especially the euro, important for Gulf imports) was always going to be a recipe for strong money inflows and inflation in these countries.  The economic dynamism — most striking in Dubai —  is admirable and fascinating as a longer term phenomenon, but also now clearly shows signs of overheating.  Indeed inflation has risen alarmingly, as predicted. Among other ill effects, it is producing unrest among immigrant workers.   An appreciation of the dirham and riyal is the obvious solution.


Most often discussed as an alternative to the dollar peg is a peg to a basket of major currencies.   This would be an improvement.   Kuwait, for example, made this switch a year ago.


But a basket peg does not address the fact that when oil prices rise generally (not just against the dollar), as they have in recent years, monetary policy is constrained to be looser than it should be.    Similarly, when oil prices fall generally (not just against the dollar), as they did in the 1990s, monetary policy is constrained to be tighter than it should be.   A floating exchange rate regime is the traditional alternative, on the theory that the currency would then automatically appreciate when oil prices rise and depreciate when they fall, thus accommodating the terms of trade shocks.  But there are serious disadvantages to small open countries floating, such as the loss of a nominal anchor for monetary policy. 


Today’s reigning orthodoxy is to add an inflation target as the new nominal anchor.  But this doesn’t solve the problem, if the targeted price index is the CPI, which gives little weight to oil, the biggest sector in production and exports.


I believe that a better solution would be to include the price of oil in the basket of currencies to which the Gulf currencies would peg.   I have laid out the case elsewhere (including also for the case of Iraq).  I call the proposal PEP, for Peg the Export Price.   I was pleased to see that the FT mentioned this option approvingly yesterday (“Dollar-pegged Out,” July 7):

“The Gulf needs to peg to something. A first step (after revaluation) would be to peg to a basket of currencies that included the euro and the yen. A bolder step would be to include the price of oil in that basket, so that currencies would appreciate when oil is strong, and depreciate when it is weak.”

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The NYT Should Have Paid More Attention to the Nordhaus Estimates Before the Iraq War

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At the 5th anniversary of the war in Iraq, estimates of its long-run cost range from $1.2-$1.7 trillion by my former colleague Peter Orszag, now Director of the Congressional Budget Office, to $23 trillion by my current colleague Linda Bilmes with another former colleague Joe Stiglitz (in a book that is appropriately getting lots of attention, including for example from John Cusack). The important point is that the costs far exceed the $50-$60 billion that the White House predicted ahead of time.

A story in today’s New York Times proclaims “Estimates of Iraqi War Cost Were Not Close to Ballpark.” It turns out that the pre-war estimates they are talking about are those that came from the Bush Administration. At the very end, the article finally mentions “Only one economist, William D. Nordhaus of Yale, seems to have come close. In a paper in December 2002, he offered a worst-case scenario of $1.9 trillion, ‘if the war drags on, occupation is lengthy, nation building is costly.’” You might not guess from the NYT story that Bill Nordhaus’s study was the only thorough independent professional attempt to estimate the cost of invading Iraq ahead of time. (At least it is the only one that I was aware of.)

The question is why the media did not give more attention to the Nordhaus estimates, and less attention to the Administration’s crazily over-optimistic forecasts, while there was still time for the nation to make an intelligent policy choice. The media’s omission was all the more conspicuous in that by December 2002 the White House’s crazily over-optimistic forecasts of the federal budget overall had already become apparent. And they are all still at it.

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