Balance of Trade Concerns

Market-Oriented Economic Reforms

The standard of living has increased dramatically for billions of people around the world in the last half century. Such increases have occurred not only in the technological leaders like the United States, Canada, the nations of Europe, and Japan, but also in the East Asian Tigers and in many nations of Latin America and Eastern Europe. The challenge for most of these countries is to maintain these growth rates. The economically-challenged regions of the world have stagnated and become stuck in poverty traps. These countries need to focus on the basics: health and education, or human capital development. As Figure illustrates, modern technology allows for the investment in education and human capital development in ways that would have not been possible just a few short years ago.

This photograph shows several students gathered around a single laptop that has been powered with solar energy.
Solar-powered Technology Modern technologies, such as solar-power and Wi-Fi, enable students to obtain education even in remote parts of a country without electricity. These students in Ghana are sharing a laptop provided by a van with solar-power. (Credit: EIFL/Flickr Creative Commons)

Other than the issue of economic growth, the other three main goals of macroeconomic policy—that is, low unemployment, low inflation, and a sustainable balance of trade—all involve situations in which, for some reason, the economy fails to coordinate the forces of supply and demand. In the case of cyclical unemployment, for example, the intersection of aggregate supply and aggregate demand occurs at a level of output below potential GDP. In the case of the natural rate of unemployment, government regulations create a situation where otherwise-willing employers become unwilling to hire otherwise-willing workers. Inflation is a situation in which aggregate demand outstrips aggregate supply, at least for a time, so that too much buying power is chasing too few goods. A trade imbalance is a situation where, because of a net inflow or outflow of foreign capital, domestic savings are not aligned with domestic investment. Each of these situations can create a range of easier or harder policy choices.

Youth Unemployment: Three Cases

Spain and South Africa had the same high youth unemployment in 2011, but the reasons for this unemployment are different. Spain’s youth unemployment surged due to the 2008-2009 Great Recession and heavy indebtedness on the part of its citizens and its government. Spain’s current account balance is negative, which means it is borrowing heavily. To cure cyclical unemployment during a recession, the Keynesian model suggests increases in government spending—fiscal expansion or monetary expansion. Neither option is open to Spain. It currently can borrow at only high interest rates, which will be a real problem in terms of debt service. In addition, the rest of the European Union (EU) has dragged its feet when it comes to debt forgiveness. Monetary expansion is not possible because Spain uses the euro and cannot devalue its currency unless it convinces all of the EU to do so. What can be done? The Economist, summarizing some ideas of economists and policymakers, suggests that Spain’s only realistic (although painful) option is to reduce government-mandated wages, which would allow it to reduce government spending. As a result, the government would be able to lower tax rates on the working population. With a lower wage or lower tax environment, firms will hire more workers. This will lower unemployment and stimulate the economy. Spain can also encourage greater foreign investment and try to promote policies that encourage domestic savings.

South Africa has more of a natural rate of unemployment problem. It is an interesting case because its youth unemployment is mostly because its young are not ready to work. Economists commonly refer to this as an employability problem. According to interviews of South African firms as reported in the Economist, the young are academically smart but lack practical skills for the workplace. Despite a big push to increase investment in human capital, the results have not yet borne fruit. Recently the government unveiled a plan to pay unemployed youth while they were “trained-up” or apprenticed in South African firms. The government has room to increase fiscal expenditure, encourage domestic savings, and continue to fund investment in education, vocational training, and apprentice programs. South Africa can also improve the climate for foreign investment from technology leaders, which would encourage economic growth.

India has a smaller youth employment problem in terms of percentages. However, bear in mind that since this is a populous country, it turns out to be a significant problem in raw numbers. According to Kaushik Basu, writing for the BBC, “there are 45 national laws governing the hiring and firing decisions of firms and close to four times that amount at the state level”. These laws make it difficult for companies to fire workers. To stay nimble and responsive to markets, Indian companies respond to these laws by hiring fewer workers. The Indian government can do much to solve this problem by adjusting its labor laws. Essentially, the government has to remove itself from firms’ hiring and firing decisions, so that growing Indian firms can freely employ more workers. Indian workers, like those in South Africa, do not have workforce skills. Again, the government can increase its spending on education, vocational training, and workforce readiness programs.

Finally, India has a significant current account deficit. This deficit is mainly a result of short- and long-term capital flows. To solve this deficit, India has experimented by lifting the limitation on domestic savers from investing abroad. This is a step in the right direction that may dampen the growth in the current account deficit. A final policy possibility is to improve domestic capital markets so many self-employed Indians can obtain access to capital to realize their business ideas. If more Indians can obtain access to capital to start businesses, employment might increase.