Thursday, November 19, 1998

Burning the bridges in Europe

In just a few weeks, on the 1st of January 1999, eleven European countries will forsake the right to issue their own currency and accept the circulation within their boundaries of a common currency, the Euro. Monetary policy related to the Euro will be set by a European Central Bank. One fact that struck me as curious is that in all the abundant legislation that regulates this process, there is no mention whatsoever of how to manage the withdrawal or future regret of any of the union’s members.

The absence of alternatives in this case evidently represents a burning of the bridges, but this may be necessary to achieve credibility. There is no turning back and there is no doubt that this is a truly historical moment. As participants in a globalized world in which Europe has an important role, we must naturally wish all members luck, no matter what worries we might secretly harbor.

Until 1971, all money used throughout the history of humanity was backed in one way or another by something physical to which a real value was attributed. Sometimes the backing was direct, pearls for example, while in other cases it was indirect such as the right to exchange bills for a certain quantity of gold.

This physical backing in itself did not necessarily mean it consisted of something of fixed value. The value of a pearl, for example, is in itself subjective. The promise to exchange bills for gold did not guarantee anything either, since this promise could easily be voided by fraud. Whatever the backing was, however, it did at least offer the holder of the money the illusion that it was supported by something concrete.

In 1971, the United States formally abandoned the gold standard and the direct backing, however imaginary, disappeared. Since the Dollar is a legal currency, it could always be used to repay Dollar denominated debt. Today, however, in spite of the fact that the Dollars may have lost some of their purchasing power, a holder of excess Dollars can only hope that the Government of the United States will exchange his old bills for new ones of the same tenor.

This apparently precarious situation must be the raison d’etre of the motto printed clearly on the bills which states “In God We Trust”.

Since 1971, the real value of the Dollar as an element of exchange, has lost some of its value due to inflation. Today, we would need many more Dollars to buy the same houses, cars, movie tickets and gold than we would have needed in 1971. In spite of the above, with few exceptions such as the end of the ‘70s during which inflation increased dramatically, few would dare qualify the United States’ elimination of the gold standard as a failure.

The world’s economies have managed to increase international commerce drastically and with it, sustain a healthy growth rate. Many analysts would explain this phenomenon by saying that the discipline exacted by the gold standard represented a brake on international commerce. The growth rate registered in commerce after 1971 was the result of the release of this brake. Other more critical analysts sustain the thesis that, due to the fact that we have abandoned the discipline required by the gold standard, the world has accumulated gigantic accounts payable, which we may be coming due very soon.

I personally swing back and forth between amazement of the fact that the world has accepted such a fragile system and satisfaction that it actually has done so.

The Euro has one characteristic that differentiates it from the Dollar. This characteristic makes me feel less optimistic as to its chances of success. The Dollar is backed by a solidly unified political entity, i.e. the United States of America. The Euro, on the other hand, seems to be aimed at creating unity and cohesion. It is not the result of these.

The possibility that the European countries will subordinate their political desires to the whims of a common Central Bank that may be theirs but really isn’t, is not a certainty. Exchange rates, while not perfect, are escape valves. By eliminating this valve, European countries must make their economic adjustments in real terms. This makes these adjustments much more explosive. High unemployment will not be confronted with a devaluation of the currency which reduces the real value of salaries in an indirect manner, but rather with a direct and open reduction of salaries or with an increase of emigration to areas offering better possibilities.

What worries me most is the timing. The world is facing the possibility of a global recession. This will require very flexible economic and monetary policies. The fact that the search for initial credibility for the Euro is based on trying to assure markets around the world that the new currency will be guided by a philosophy closer to that of Bonn than that of Rome, probably goes against the best interests of the world.

Published in Daily Journal, Caracas, November 19, 1998

PS. A new English Language Empire?

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Bashing the consumer

Once again we are in the midst of a debate about the allocation of a concession for a cellular telephone operation. One part of this debate is relative to whether the law to be applied in this case is the Telecommunications Law of 1941 or the Concessions Law of 1994.

As usual, most of the arguments are a direct function of the commercial interest involved. In this particular case, however, it is even more surprising to find that the General Director of the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) is of the opinion that neither of the two apply, holding the singular view instead that cellular communications are not to be classified a public service.

Again, as is tradition, the debate does not cover the entire communicational spectrum. Once again, the end user of the service is conspicuously absent.

In 1991 Israel bid and allocated a cellular telephone concession to the investor that offered the most amount of lines and agreed to charge the lowest tariff. In Venezuela, however, concessions and privatizations are designed to maximize the income for the State. Results come fast and hard. Recent calculations support the fact that one minute of cellular communications in Venezuela costs ten times what it costs in Israel.

Quality and low tariffs for public services such as electricity, water, communications and transportation are some of the critical elements that must be present in order to maintain the country’s competitiveness. This fact should be taken into consideration by entities such as Fedecamaras and other influential groups that, like any court jester, have in the past applauded a privatization process that must, for all intents and purposes, be classified as fiscally oriented.

The Telecommunications Law, as no other, is evidence of this trend. There is absolutely no mention whatsoever of any obligation or duty of an operator or carrier to provide a good public service at a reasonable tariff. What’s more, when the moment comes to address the regulation of tariffs, apart from the fact that the Law calls for respect for existing agreements, it establishes with utmost clarity that any regulation must consider the “interests of the National fiscal system”.

Don’t think that the Concessions Law is much different. While it logically states that “the concessionaire must be allowed to obtain sufficient income to cover costs and that is fair and equitable”, there is no mention about the need, or even the intent, to structure the concession in such as was so as to minimize the cost to the end user of the service to be offered.

It is high time that we begin to differentiate in a more rational manner between sane economic policies and those that, simply because they are being applied to what has been loosely classified as a “market”, are believed to be the quick road to an economic miracle and are consequently implemented indiscriminately. Much care must be taken when a “market” simply does not exist. This is specially true in the case of public services, which are mostly structured as monopolies, public or private.

Public service companies traditionally offer workers employment stability and therefore also pay salaries that are below the average. Recently, faced with the threat of a national strike, a representative of the national monopoly identified by the initials CANTV, expressed surprise, arguing that the latter was paying salaries over and above the national average. Without wishing to belittle the individual aspirations of its workforce, I remember asking myself who had authorized CANTV to pay its employees salaries above the national average, probably at the expense of a higher tariff for the service offered.

The government, as well as many of the Presidential hopefulls, has announced a new wave of privatizations, specifically in the energy sector. As a result, it is of utmost importance that they remember that a high price obtained for the sale of a publicly owned company like SIDOR is beneficial for everyone, while a high price obtained from the sale or concession of a public service is simply a tax paid in advance to the State, which all of us must then repay via unnecessarily high tariffs for per secula seculorum.

I have read about the supposed “advantage” of tendering and allocating a few megahertz (50 to be exact) at which any investor must then throw an additional US$ 200 million in project development funding. First of all, Conatel hopes to land a US$ 180 million windfall. Then the State wishes to obtain US$ 325 million in income taxes and US$ 470 million in sales taxes between now and the year 2009.

In other words, the tariff structure needed to award the investor a “fair and equitable” income must contemplate not only the US$ 200 million development cost, but also the payment to the State of US$ 975 million. Where the dickens does this leave the end user?

Daily Journal, Caracas, November 11, 1998

Wednesday, November 04, 1998

The index of perceived Corruption

Transparency International (TI) has developed an index by means of which it ranks countries around the world according to their perceived levels of internal corruption. I have a Danish friend who recently came to me for the umpteenth time with this list clutched firmly in his fist, proudly crowing over the fact that Denmark once again tops the list as the least corrupt country while Venezuela once again comes in toward the bottom, beaten out for the basement spot by only seven countries among which we find Colombia and Nigeria.

As a Venezuelan, I immediately went into a defensive mode. I argued that since the index is based on the perception of corruption, it could be that the results merely indicate a serious problem of exactly that, the perception, not the reality. Additionally, should this actually be true (evidently not the case), I told him that although I did lament the fact that Venezuela was not mentioned in the top half of the list, I was at least satisfied that we were definitely not occupying any “not too human” first place.

My good friend, observing my discomfort, realizing that I have some Swedish blood in my veins, and in a sincere effort to console me, blurted out that in reality he also did not understand why Denmark had been ranked first while Sweden was ranked third. My immediate reply was “Chico, Denmark must simply have paid more for it.” 

Jest aside, the index is the result of a serious effort on the part of professionals of diverse backgrounds who, using the few tools available, have managed to develop a system of evaluation which is useful and of great support for every citizen wishing to combat this age-old plague. 

Its importance is of even greater significance when we hear that Transparency International suggests that we don’t attribute more accuracy than necessary to its index. Venezuela’s ranking on this list of 85 countries is such that it is evident, to say the least, that the country’s level of corruption is far greater than average. This is bad enough!

Any debate over whether Venezuela should be ranked higher could be perceived simply as a strategy aimed at discrediting the index. Only the beneficiaries of corruption could possibly have an interest in doing this. A true patriot would not waste one single second of his or her valuable time in debating why people speak poorly of our country. On the contrary, he would dedicate all his time and energy to correct the reality instead of objecting to the perception.

This debate on corruption is truly difficult and complicated. Even though we should be pleased that such an index exists, I am worried that the mere fact that we are trying to reduce corruption to terms of a measurable dimension may lead us to oversimplify the problem dangerously.

The index, in principle, only measures the perception of corruption in general terms. This is defined in ample terms as “the abuse of public office for private gain.” In this sense, and because of the nature of the problem, I am sure that when using the term “gain” we are referring mostly to a monetary benefit. This avoids measuring other aspects of corruption that could be just as important or more.

For instance, I believe that the appointment of someone to public office for reasons other than his or her capacity or professional integrity is a corruption that is even more pernicious and costly to the country than the sum of all monetary corruption put together.

An example of this is our recent banking-sector crisis. The costs caused by the poor administration of this crisis are far and above the costs attributable directly to the bankers involved. It’s not that the bankers are free of guilt. They did undoubtedly start the fire. But whose fault is it that the financial firemen were caught napping and did not hear the alarms, and that once they finally got to the scene of the disaster they tried to douse the flames with gasoline instead of water? 

I make these comments to remind all that the monster of corruption has a thousand heads. I would be sad if all the result of the efforts to slay this monster would simply be the elimination of the traditional offers of discounts for prompt payment, right then and there, and that we frequently receive when fined for a traffic violation.

Let me make one last comment on this quite tortuous subject. In Venezuela, perhaps more than in any other countries, there is more than sufficient evidence of the total administrative ineptitude of the state, and all of our governments have absolutely no results to show, considering all of their income. Nonetheless multilateral agencies, such as the International Monetary Fund, frequently come to the country and recommend an action (sales taxes) that could only mean allowing the state to squander even more resources. For whom then is the IMF working? For the politicians? Could we then be staring at another unknown dimension of this monster called Corruption?

As edited for Voice and Noise, 2006
Originally published The Daily Journal, Caracas, November 4 1998

El Indice de Percepción de la Corrupción 

Hay un índice, desarrollado por Transparencia Internacional (TI), relativo a la percepción que existe sobre la corrupción en distintos países. Tengo un amigo danés que por enésima vez este año me ha suministrado la copia del ranking, donde Dinamarca aparece como el país menos corrupto y Venezuela, en corrupción, solo es superada por siete países entre los cuales esta Colombia y Nigeria.

Como venezolano, en obligada defensa, le expuse que por cuanto el índice lo que mide es la percepción que se tiene sobre la corrupción, puede que los resultados solo indiquen serias dificultades de apreciación. Además y para el caso (negado) de que fuese cierto, le comente que si bien lamentaba que Venezuela no estuviese en la parte superior de la tabla, por lo menos me satisfacía el que no ocupasen un "inhumano" primer lugar.

Mi amigo, a sabiendas que también soy de procedencia sueca y en un esfuerzo por consolarme, expreso, de forma generosa, de que en verdad no entendía sobre que bases se había determinado que Dinamarca ocupase el primer lugar y Suecia el tercero. Mi replica fue inmediata; "Chico, Dinamarca debe haber pagado mas!"

Apartemos la broma. El índice es el resultado del esfuerzo por parte de un grupo de profesionales diversos que, con base a las muy pocas herramientas disponibles, han logrado desarrollar un sistema de evaluación útil y de mucho apoyo para todo ciudadano deseoso de combatir esta plaga de vieja data.

Su importancia se hace aun más significativa cuando, siguiendo las propias sugerencias de TI, no le atribuimos mas exactitud que la necesaria. La posición de Venezuela en esta lista de 85 países es tal que sin lugar a duda podemos decir que en nuestro país tiene una corrupción mayor que el promedio. Lo anterior resulta suficientemente malo.

El debatir sobre si Venezuela debe estar en un puesto mejor, simplemente seria una estrategia para tratar de desacreditar el índice y en esto solo podrían tener interés los beneficiarios de la corrupción. El patriota no dedicaría ni un segundo al debatir el porqué se habla mal del país sino daría todo su empeño en corregir la situación.

Qué difícil resulta todo el debate relativo a la corrupción. Aun cuando reconozco que, en el papel de motivador, debemos agradecer la existencia del índice, me preocupa de que el solo hecho de tratar de medir la corrupción, al tener que reducirlo a una dimensión que permita su medición, puede conducirnos a una peligrosa simplificación del problema.

El índice, en principio, solo mide la percepción que se tiene como una corrupción general, definida esta de forma amplia como "el abuso de cargo publico en beneficio propio". En tal sentido y por la sola naturaleza del problema, estoy seguro que el termino de "beneficio propio" implica principalmente un beneficio monetario, obviando medir aspectos de corrupción que pudiesen ser tanto o mas importantes.

Creo que la corrupción presente cuando se nombra a quien habrá de ejercer un cargo público, por razones distintas a su capacidad e integridad profesional, es más perniciosa y costosa para el país que la suma de todas las corrupciones monetarias.

Como ejemplo de lo anterior, los costos derivados de la mala administración de la crisis bancaria supera, por largo rato, los costos que de forma directa son atribuibles a los banqueros. No es que los banqueros sean inocentes, sin duda prendieron el fuego, pero; ¿quién es el responsable de que el cuerpo de bomberos financieros, estuviesen dormidos sin oír la alarma y luego utilizaran gasolina para apagar las llamas?

Hago esta observaciones para recordar que el monstruo de la corrupción tiene mil caras. Seria lastimoso que el resultado de los esfuerzos que se haga para combatirla, solo culmine en que cuando se imponga una multa por violación de transito, no se ofrezca la tradicional alternativa, del descuento por pronto pago.

Por ultimo un comentario sobre este escabroso tema. En Venezuela mas que en cualquier otro país ha quedado evidenciado la total ineptitud administrativa del Estado. Todos los ingresos del mundo y nada de resultados. Cuando entonces un organismo, como el Fondo Monetario Internacional viene acá y nos receta, como única vía para salir de nuestros problemas, el que proveamos al Estado con mas ingresos aún, pagando mas impuestos, para el beneficio no individual sino colectivo de la secta política; ¿estaremos enfrentando una faceta desconocida de la corrupción?

Saturday, July 18, 1998

There is no time for games

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the evolution of economic nomenclature in the context of describing the efforts of economists and politicians to soften over the impact of economic disasters. He describes how, throughout the period between 1907 until the Nixon years, the word ‘panic’ evolved into crisis, depression, recession, sideways movement and rolling readjustment. At the end of this period, the panic of 1893 would have been called a simple “growth correction”.

In Venezuela we have perfected the habit of exaggeration, and I therefore think we have never linguistically sub-estimated our economic crises. Our problem is that we have never managed to act in accordance with the gravity of our problems. We are eight months away from the swearing in of a new government, but the majority of the proposals put before us seem to be related more with actually making it there rather than with finding ways of facing the emergency situation we are in today.

In today’s economic context, we have a basic problem. The country blithely jumped onto the global wave of commercial aperture without having identified a strategy beforehand that would guarantee an acceptable level of employment. We trusted too much in the sheer power of market forces while totally ignoring the fact that sometimes these forces can work only if there is a total destruction of the existing economic structure in the country. Nobody was willing or prepared to accept such destruction, nor did anyone have much reason to accept one of such magnitude.

Unemployment grew hand in hand with the opening of the economy to global markets that implied prices at international levels, for example, for fertilizers. Instead of allowing the market in all its cruelty (supposedly temporarily), to indicate the way forward, politicians, either because their hands trembled or simply because they wished to take advantage of the added resources, let the public sector employment grow as never before.

We are at the crossroads of a new century (indeed, millennium). We know that the marginal economic value of our public expenditure is zero, zilch, zippo. We also know that we should, without much contemplation, sack almost 500,000 public employees, since these, also without contemplation, are the most probable cause of the poverty of another 5 million. What we do not know is how to go about it, especially in an electoral year.

The result is that we continue to be captives of the illusion that this massive reduction can be made only when the private sector (who’s taxes and interest rates we want increased) has supplied us with jobs to offset it. My God! We certainly seemed to have made up our mind on this particular chicken and egg situation.

The current state of the oil sector makes this structural problem even worse. If it was difficult to maintain the system with oil at US$ 15 per barrel, it must be impossible at US$ 11. The drop in oil prices, however, now gives us the excuse to review our current policies. If I were to sit down with a panel of experts and was allowed the traditional 30 seconds that is allowed an expert to solve problems, I would say:

Our priority is to generate real employment in Venezuela. If we don’t, we will never recapture the confidence of the Venezuelans, and without the latter the confidence of the international community is a moot point and may even be damaging. The lowering of interest rates is essential in order to kick-start this policy. In this sense, we must devalue the Bolivar now, accepting that it has already been devalued about 20%, a fact just hidden behind high interest rates. We should also study the possibility of changing banking regulations to allow for a system of financing based on indexed units that would allow real repayment terms for those who wish to invest in long term projects.

In order to insure that the above has real significance and does not worsen the situation even more, we must among other things: immediately reduce public payroll by 500,000 people; reactivate the construction sector; impose (without being bashful) protectionist import duties of 20% on all imports (except those from Colombia, the only trading partner were we bilaterally seem to be promoting jobs and who we should invite to join us in the increase of tariffs); and finally, reduce or even eliminate the value added tax. The reduction of the value-added tax, even though it flies in the face of fiscal balance, is a sacrifice the politicians must go through in order to make their promise of the reduction of the public sector in favor of the private one credible.

People may say that this is a Messianic proposal. In many ways they may be right. I think, however, that this alternative is based on sounder fundamentals than, say, those of the desperate Messianism which argues for the sale of PDVSA in order to balance the accounts.

The day a constitutional prohibition on new debt is put into place and the government has been limited and complies with its duties, I will be at ease with the plan to sell PDVSA in order to service our debt. In the meantime, the only patriotic thing to do is to avoid fanning the fires of waste, such as we did with the resources obtained from the oil opening.

The demands of university professors simply serve to make a point for drastic action. The professors brazenly maintain that they are 40,000 strong in 17 public universities. This translates into 2,350 per institution and they are asking for the equivalent of US$ 115,000 per head in compensation.

This is not a time for fun and games. Towards the end of June I read a statement issued by a representative of the World Bank who contemplates the possibility of a real depression in Asia. This is the first time I’ve read something like that, and knowing how discreet these officials usually are, it is frightening.

Friday, April 03, 1998

The taxes we have to pay

It is time for payment of income taxes and I have just complied with my duty as a citizen. I must admit that compared to what I would have paid elsewhere, I personally did not have to pay an exaggerated amount of tax. Why is it then, that I am not satisfied? Could it be that it is because I am being eaten away inside by a suspicion, already bordering on certainty, that my country would be better off had I not paid taxes at all?

On the same day I finished struggling through my tax forms, I read in the press about PDVSA´s fiscal contribution for 1997. This contribution amounted to all the Bolivares in the world. Upon cranking the numbers on my calculator which went into an exponential mode, I found that this boils down to a contribution per capita of Bs. 200,000 for every Venezuelan citizen, rich and poor, young and old.

I imagine that in the international world of taxation, these Bs. 200,000, which translate to US$ 400 per year, don’t qualify for a position at the top of the list. If, however, they are expressed in terms of some of the public services offered, these figures are numbing.

Every retired Venezuelan, those we hold dear to our hearts and affectionately refer to as “los viejitos”, is due to receive Bs. 50,000 per month in retirement pay. Using the technology provided for by modern accounting, i.e. re-expression, we can affirm that every Venezuelan, rich and poor, young and old have contributed, via the cession of his or her portion of oil income, an equivalent of 4 months of retirement pay to the nation’s coffers. These figures would undoubtedly qualify us, as taxpayers, for mention in the Guinness World Book of Records.

All of this is before we even get into what we all pay in sales tax, (VAT) which by law must not be specified in the final sales price of any product. This only hides even further the magnitude of the buyer’s contribution to the above mentioned coffers. Is this restriction due simply to bad conscience or to outright hooliganism? I will let others decide.

And all of this before we include the other hidden taxes such as the sky high telephone rates we must pay because the nation has sold concessions at elevated prices in order to raise fresh resources. Authorities (in this case Conatel) have already gone on record as stating that during the next bid for a concession of a cellular phone system, we “must not commit the same mistake of selling it cheaply, in obvious detriment of the interests of the State. We must try to get more than US$ 100 million for it”. Obviously, those US$ 100 million must be repaid by the end user, by way of higher tariffs. Obviously, nobody has considered the right of the common citizen to be able to communicate economically. One of these days it will occur to someone to announce the letting of a concession for pure air.

And all of this before we include the hidden taxes represented by the abominable public services we receive.

And all of this before we include the immense contribution of a healthy portion of the physicians, professors, teachers and other professionals that work and comply with their obligations, earning pay that is well below what it should be.

And all of this before the contribution of companies in the form of taxes on assets, which must be paid whether the company is in the black or in the red and which ultimately find their way to the final consumer.

And all this before we consider the astronomic taxes incurred due to a string of devaluations, the impact of which is proven when we see that never, before or after Columbus, has the public sector been so large in comparison to the private sector. The essence of any neo-liberal model is the reduction of the influence of the public sector on the economy. The tropicalized interpretation of this model by our government officials has allowed them to get rid of all that has become obsolete, that is causing them problems or even worse, that requires investment. It seems that their dream is to keep all fiscal income but without any of the corresponding obligations.

This series of inexhaustible fiscal contributions, voluntary and involuntary, evident and occult, is justified by the threat that, should we not pay up, we will have a monster deficit, inflation will eat us alive, and along with these two specters the big bad wolf will get us as well. Ladies and Gentlemen, inflation has been around for many years and the wolf has been here for some time. It seems to me he is dressed up as the taxman.

Venezuela’s problem cannot be found on the fiscal contribution side of the coin. Venezuela’s problem is found, with crystal clarity, on the fiscal spending side. This is why, by paying my income tax, I could be causing damage to my country. Something like giving drugs to an addict. Something like giving an alcoholic a bottle of rum. Something like treason.

The next time you see a dirty, tattered and hungry child abandoned in the streets without hope, remember that he has also contributed Bs. 200,000 to the Venezuelan State in 1997.