Structural Reforms: What are they and how do you go about it?

BY Anupam Manur (@anupammanur)

No democratically elected government with a limited term of office would want to risk negative popularity in the short term for potential benefit in the future, for which they might not be able to take credit.

The microeconomist’s universal answer to all questions is demand and supply and the macroeconomist’s version is structural reforms. So goes the joke. Kaushik Basu, Chief Economist of the World Bank, in fact tweeted something similar: “Structural reform is safe advice. No one knows what it means. If economy grows: I told you. If it stalls: You didn’t do structural reform.”

So, what exactly constitutes structural reforms? From the political angle, The Economist looks at structural reforms as changes to the way the government works. From an economic viewpoint: it is about making markets work efficiently in the various sectors of the economy. An IMF paper[i] describes structural reforms as: “They typically concern policies geared towards raising productivity by improving the technical efficiency of markets and institutional structures, and by reducing or removing impediments to the efficient allocation of resources”. In fact, changes in the Ease of Doing Business rankings, published anually by the World Bank, signifies the various structural reforms undertaken in any country.

Structural reforms gained popularity from the IMF and World Bank. The two global institutions would attach preconditions to the loans that they provided to countries. These conditions were known as Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP). Only upon initiating these reforms would a country be eligible to get loans from the IMF or World Bank. These reforms included:

  1. Trade liberalisation: Removing barriers to trade, decreasing tariffs and quotas, exchange rate liberalisation, and minismising the government’s involvement in trade.
  2. Balancing budgets: Governments had to impose strict austerity measures to reduce the fiscal deficit and create a roadmap for repayment of the loan, which involved raising taxes and cutting down expenditure.
  3. Reigning in inflation by imposing tighter monetary policy conditions and removing government’s influence in the central bank’s functioning.
  4. Removing many state controls on production, subsidies, price controls, etc.
  5. Encouraging investment by removing regulatory hurdles. This applied to both domestic and international (FDI) investment. This also involved market deregulation in most sectors of the economy.
  6. Improving overall governance structures, reducing corruption, etc
  7. Privatization and divestment of large public sector units.

Much of the Fund’s current work still revolves around the same issues. In the latest Article IV IMF staff consultation with member countries, their recommendations for most of the countries bordered around the same issues: initiate structural reforms: the United States has to reform its primary education, while France has to balance its budget and urgently carry out labour market reforms; Japan needs structural reforms to inspire more migration to mitigate the demographic crisis, and Brazil need to reduce the fiscal deficit, inflation, corruption in the government, undertake financial market reforms, and so on.

Most empirical analysis does bear out the fact that structural reforms matter to increasing productivity and GDP growth. However, there are a lot of conditions under which structural reforms work. Most countries try to undertake structural reforms when they are in crisis – either out of their own volition in order to fix the broken systems or by command from the IMF and World Bank. The success of the reforms depend upon a number of factors, such as the initial conditions, strength of existing institutions, speed of reforms and the sequencing of the reforms. After the disintegration of the USSR, for example, many countries undertook structural reforms in order to move to a market based economy. Each country followed a different approach and the ensuing results very varied. The Central and Eastern European countries fared far better than the former Soviet Union countries.

There are two important political economy factors at play that determine the success of structural reforms. The first is the time lag between the implementation of the reforms and the eventual positive effects of the same. Most empirical research shows that there is a considerable lag before the positive effects are played out in the economy, be it in terms of increased growth, reduced inflation, increased employment or higher trade. In between, however, it is not uncommon to see short term pain and a dip in growth. This explains why most countries are still reluctant about implementing big reforms. No democratically elected government with a limited term of office would want to risk negative popularity in the short term for potential benefit in the future, which they might not be able to take credit for.

Closely related is the second political economy factor of managing the winners and the losers. Every big reform will create multiple winners and losers. Economists such as Roland suggests that a gradual approach to reforms would allow an opportunity to giving compensating tranfers to losers from reforms to buy their acceptance.

The former Swedish Finance Minister, Anders Borg, has written an insightful article on the ways to tackle this particular problem. One of his biggest advice: front loading. “When structural reforms are implemented close to an election, the short-term impact will dominate the debate, and the more nebulous long-term gains will be written off as uncertain forecasts.” Thus, this should be done early enough after a government is formed to allow for some of the positive effects to come through before the next election.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution.

[i] “Structural Reforms And Macroeconomic Performance: Initial Considerations For The Fund”, IMF Staff Reports, November 2015.

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